I read an enlightening piece this week in The New Atlantis – a very serious magazine – that I hope is read soon by Donald Trump, Vice President Mike Pence, every member of the House Freedom caucus, Rep. Kevin McCarthy, the conservative minority among Senate Republicans and all Americans who are suspicious of mega-rich, mega-powerful corporations like Google, Facebook and Amazon.
Written by Andrew White, the headline is very simple – not to mention alarming: “Google.gov.” The subheadline: “Amid growing calls to break up Google, are we missing a quiet alignment between ‘smart’ government and the universal information engine?”
The questions it raises are hinted at in the opening paragraph: “Google exists to answer our small questions. But how will we answer larger questions about Google itself? Is it a monopoly? Does it exert too much power over our lives? Should the government regulate it as a public utility – or even break it up?”
I’ll summarize a few of the alarming things you will learn from this piece – with my help, of course:
- Serious publications from left to right have been paying attention to Google lately. In February, the New York Times Magazine published “The Case Against Google,” about how “the search giant is squelching competition before it begins.” The Wall Street Journal published a similar article in January on the “antitrust case” against Google, along with Facebook and Amazon, whose market shares it compared to Standard Oil and AT&T at their peaks.
- Google and Barack Obama’s administration had a “uniquely close relationship. Their special bond is best ascribed not to the revolving door, although hundreds of meetings were held between the two; nor to crony capitalism, although hundreds of people have switched jobs from Google to the Obama administration or vice versa; nor to lobbying prowess, although Google is one of the top corporate lobbyists. Rather, the ultimate source of the special bond between Google and the Obama White House – and modern progressive government more broadly – has been their common ethos. Both view society’s challenges today as social-engineering problems, whose resolutions depend mainly on facts and objective reasoning. Both view information as being at once ruthlessly value-free and yet, when properly grasped, a powerful force for ideological and social reform. And so both aspire to reshape Americans’ informational context, ensuring that we make choices based only upon what they consider the right kinds of facts – while denying that there would be any values or politics embedded in the effort.”
- “Addressing an M.I.T. sports-analytics conference in February, former President Obama said that Google, Facebook and prominent internet services are ‘not just an invisible platform, but they are shaping our culture in powerful ways.'”
- “This approach, if Google were to accept it, could be immensely consequential. As we will see, during the Obama years, Google became aligned with progressive politics on a number of issues – net neutrality, intellectual property, payday loans and others. If Google were to think of itself as a genuine public good in a manner calling upon it to give users not only the results they want but the results that Google thinks they need, the results that informed consumers and democratic citizens ought to have, then it will become an indispensable adjunct to progressive government. The future might not be U.S. v. Google but Google.gov.”
- “A perfect search engine will process and understand all the information in the world,” co-founder Sergey Brin announced in a 1999 press release. “Google’s mission is to organize the world’s information, making it universally accessible and useful.” Ask yourself if the Google you know really understands all the information in the world, or serves as the new gatekeeper of all that information – sorting it and emphasizing what its algorithms and content cops, like the Southern Poverty Law Center, think you should know.
- Google did not monetize itself the way those with more modest investment, like WND, attempted to do back in 1999, when we both started up. Google created its own “AdWords” system, which places relevant advertisements next to search results, and which supplies ads to other websites with precisely calibrated content. Google would find its fortune in these techniques – which were major innovations in their own right – with $1.4 billion in ad revenue in 2003, ballooning to $95 billion last year. Since then, Google has used that fortune to launch Gmail, which, if you use it, gives Google more information about you than the National Security Agency has.
- “At the outset, in 1999, Google was serving roughly a billion searches per year. Today, the figure runs to several billion per day.” (Emphasis added.) “But even more stark than the absolute number of searches is Google’s market share: According to the January Wall Street Journal article calling for antitrust action against Google, the company now conducts 89 percent of all Internet searches, a figure that rivals Standard Oil’s market share in the early 1900s and AT&T’s in the early 1980s. (Again, emphasis added.)
- “But Google’s success ironically brought about challenges to its credibility, as companies eager to improve their ranking in search results went to great lengths to game the system. Because Google relied on ‘objective’ metrics, to some extent they could be reverse-engineered by web developers keen to optimize their sites to increase their ranking.” That was called search engine optimization – something that was effective, but only temporarily. “Google soon needed to protect the workings of its algorithms ‘with utmost confidentiality.'” What the article doesn’t tell you is that Google set the new standards for rankings in search – giving preference to the sites, particularly in news, that Google ownership and management liked – namely the New York Times, the Washington Post, CNN and other “establishment,” “mainstream,” “progressive” sources of news.
- “But Google’s approach had its cost. As the company gained a dominant market share in search … critics would be increasingly uncomfortable with the idea that they had to take Google’s word that it wasn’t manipulating its algorithm for business or competitive purposes. To defend itself, Google would characteristically invoke logic: any variance from the best possible results for its searchers would make the product less useful and drive people away, it argued. But it withheld the data that would prove that it was playing fair. Google was ultimately betting on maintaining the public trust. If you didn’t trust Google, how could you trust the world it presented in its results? Google’s neutrality was critical to its success. But that neutrality had to be accepted on trust. And today – even as Google continues to reiterate its original mission ‘to organize the world’s information, making it universally accessible and useful’ – that trust is steadily eroding.”
- “But Google’s own standard of neutrality in presenting the world’s information is only part of the story, and there is reason not to take it at face value. The standard of neutrality is itself not value-neutral but a moral standard of its own, suggesting a deeper ethos and aspiration about information. Google has always understood its ultimate project not as one of rote descriptive recall but of informativeness in the fullest sense. Google, that is, has long aspired not merely to provide people the information they ask for but to guide them toward informed choices about what information they’re seeking.” In other words, it’s not “neutral.” It is making decisions about content based on its worldview, which happens to be “progressive,” as defined by Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton and the SPLC. As the article says, “Put more simply, Google aims to give people not just the information they do want but the information Google thinks they should want. As we will see, the potential political ramifications of this aspiration are broad and profound.”
- In July 2001, after Eric Schmidt became chairman of the board and the month before he would become CEO, Google gathered a small group of early employees to identify Google’s core values, so that they could be protected through the looming expansion and inevitable bureaucratization. As John Battelle describes it in his 2005 book “The Search”: “The meeting soon became cluttered with the kind of easy and safe corporate clichés that everyone can support, but that carry little impact: Treat Everyone with Respect, for example. … That’s when Paul Buchheit, another engineer in the group, blurted out what would become the most important three words in Google’s corporate history. … ‘All of these things can be covered by just saying, Don’t Be Evil.’ Those three words ‘became a cultural rallying call at Google, initially for how Googlers should treat each other, but quickly for how Google should behave in the world as well.” The motto exerted a genuine gravitational pull on the company’s deliberations, as Steven Levy recounts: “An idea would come up in a meeting with a whiff of anti-competitiveness to it, and someone would remark that it sounded … evil. End of idea.”
- To Googlers, Levy notes, the motto “was a shortcut to remind everyone that Google was better than other companies.” This also seems to have been the upshot to Google’s rivals, to whom the motto smacked of arrogance. “Well, of course, you shouldn’t be evil,” Amazon founder Jeff Bezos told Battelle. “But then again, you shouldn’t have to brag about it either.”
- But Google didn’t use the Ten Commandments as a guide to what is evil. “‘Don’t be evil’ is mainly another way to empower employees. … Googlers do regularly check their moral compass when making decisions. (Emphasis added.) So here is an unaccountable corporation determining, effectively, for the entire world – and, of course, the United States – what is evil.
- “Google doesn’t actually provide, as most users understand, what search users really want or need. Put another way, the ultimate aspiration is not to answer a user’s question but the question Google believes she should have asked. Schmidt himself drew this conclusion in 2010.”
This brief introduction is merely meant to whet your appetite for what follows when the you read the entire article for yourself – which I highly recommend you do. As I have written in dozens of columns over the last six months, I believe Google represents a unique challenge to our free and open society in the U.S. – not in the years ahead, but right now. Almost no one perceives the threats we face as a result of this wholly unaccountable mega-corporation.
Add to that the others that have emerged in its wake – Facebook, YouTube, a wholly owned subsidiary of Google, Twitter and Amazon – and you have a cartel that represents, in my estimation, an existential threat to the First Amendment in all three of its components: Freedom of speech, freedom of the press and freedom of religion.
I advise you to read this article in its entirety. When you are done, see if what I have been writing for the last six months has merit. One thing I can assure you of, you won’t easily find these commentaries by using Google search:
The death of the First Freedom
Google-Facebook vs. America
Google, Facebook and the war on 1st Amendment
The worst ‘fake news’ – Google News
Open letter to Trump on Google-Facebook-Amazon threat
Google-Facebook speech police killing 1st Amendment
Endangered species: Independent media, free speech
Is Amazon following censorious path of Google-Facebook?
Google – an ideological, anti-Christian bully
The clear and present danger of Google-Facebook
What about a day without Google-Facebook?
Drudge warned us all about Google-Facebook
Google-Facebook control of speech is threat to nation
Threat to independent media worse than you know
The greatest threat to free speech, privacy in America
Never before have so few controlled so much debate