Amid growing calls to break up Google, is the public missing a quietly developing merger of the universal information engine with government?
That’s the question posed by a lengthy analysis in the New Atlantis, a journal that focuses on the intersection of technology and society.
The piece by scholar Adam J. White points out concerns expressed in articles by the New York Times Magazine, the Wall Street Journal and others that Google, as well as Facebook and Amazon, has become a monopoly much like Standard Oil and AT&T were at their peaks.
White is a research fellow at the Hoover Institution and an assistant professor and the director of the Center for the Study of the Administrative State at George Mason University’s Antonin Scalia Law School.
White observes that reporters and commentators have reflected on Google’s immense power over its competitors and its customers, which prompt “suggestions that the traditional antitrust remedies of regulation or breakup may be necessary to rein Google in.”
But that focus is obscuring the growing relationship emerging between Google and progressive government.
White notes the close relationship forged between Google and the Obama administration, in particular, through various means, including an exchange of personnel.
He emphasizes that the “ultimate source of the special bond between Google and the Obama White House” has been the modern progressive government, which is their “common ethos.”
He argues that both government and Google view society’s challenges as social-engineering problems, whose resolutions depend mainly on facts and objective reasoning.
Both, he points out, “view information as being at once ruthlessly value-free and yet, when properly grasped, a powerful force for ideological and social reform.”
And, finally, 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.”
He recalls former President Obama’s speech in February at an MIT sports-analytics conference in which Obama said Google, Facebook and other prominent Internet services are “not just an invisible platform, but they are shaping our culture in powerful ways.”
Referencing the outcries over “fake news,” Obama warned that if Google and other platforms enable every American to personalize their news sources, it is “very difficult to figure out how democracy works over the long term.”
Obama’s answer to the problem, however, was not to break up or regulate the tech giants but to treat them as “public goods.”
“I do think that the large platforms — Google and Facebook being the most obvious, but Twitter and others as well that are part of that ecosystem — have to have a conversation about their business model that recognizes they are a public good as well as a commercial enterprise,” the former president said.
White warns that if Google were to accept Obama’s approach, an “immensely consequential” alliance would emerge.
He notes Google became aligned with progressive politics on issues such as net neutrality, intellectual property and payday loans.
“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,” he writes.
“The future might not be U.S. v. Google but Google.gov.”