If you Google “What is the world’s biggest private spying-services contractor?” the result should read: “Google.”
In November, Google employees published a letter of protest against Project Dragonfly, Google’s search engine for the Chinese market, alleging that the tool would facilitate government censorship of and spying on citizens. “Providing the Chinese government with ready access to user data, as required by Chinese law, would make Google complicit in oppression and human rights abuses,” they wrote. “Many of us accepted employment at Google with the company’s values in mind, including its previous position on Chinese censorship and surveillance, and an understanding that Google was a company willing to place its values above its profits.”
The sixth core value in Google’s “Ten things we know to be true” is “You can make money without doing evil.” Google abandoned this value long before Dragonfly. In December, Google CEO Sundar Pichai was grilled by House Judiciary Committee members, many of whom were convinced that the search engine was a tool of left-wing radicals, others who questioned the company’s privacy practices. “All of these topics—competition, censorship, bias and others—point to one fundamental question that demands the nation’s attention,” said House Republican leader Kevin McCarthy. “Are America’s technology companies serving as instruments of freedom or instruments of control?”
In hyper-partisan times, information is the weapon of choice. House Republicans charge that Google is engaging in censorship based on perceived favoritism toward anti-right content in web searches; the Dragonfly outrage encompasses not just censorship but also invasion of privacy and spying on China’s citizens. The fundamental issue is whether Google is an open marketplace of information or a vehicle for censorship and spying.
Google’s name is synonymous with Internet search: “If it’s out there, you can find it on Google.” Its mission is “to organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful.” Before buying Google’s claim that it places objectivity before profits, follow the money. Parent company Alphabet reported earnings of $110 billion in 2017, with ad revenue accounting for more than half. Businesses pay a lot to get top rankings, and users gravitate to top search results even when lower-placed organic results are more relevant. In a 2015 study participants prioritized the first page of search results and their order on the page even when researchers reversed the order of results. A 2016 study found that user clicks on paid advertising featuring Google’s own services increased by more than half while clicks on organic search listings decreased by the same amount.
We should care how Google makes its money because the foundation of our political system is at stake. The “search engine manipulation effect” can change the outcome of national elections by more than 25 percent, with rankings masked so users aren’t aware of the manipulation. No wonder North American companies spend more than $20 billion annually to place results at the top of rankings.
Given the life-or-death importance of placement, it’s no surprise that Google settled for $22.5 million a class action lawsuit claiming that ads were relegated to search engine “no man’s land”: “Google concealed from advertisers that it actually was placing substantial numbers of their ads on low quality parked domain and error pages that contained little or no content, and which could not be accessed through what Internet users considered to be search,” according to the complaint. In 2017 the European Union fined Google a record-breaking $2.7 billion, finding that the company manipulated search results to give an “illegal advantage” to its own services while harming rivals.
We don’t need to go to China to find censorship. Google made its fortune through manipulation of search results, systematically stifling content by pushing it below the magic first page or moving it onto inaccessible pages. As to privacy, China may be the wakeup call but it isn’t the culprit. Searching on Google is like being in a room with a portrait whose eyes follow you wherever you stand. They’ve figured out what you’re doing, what you’re thinking, and what you need to purchase. The information isn’t likely to be used to persecute you, but incessant, targeted advertising could itself be considered a unique form of torture.
We are already victims of the China Syndrome. Instead of protesting censorship and spying in China, we should stop it in our own backyards. It’s time for the United States, which follows a piecemeal approach to information protection, to join more than 80 countries worldwide in adopting comprehensive data privacy laws requiring that individual information be kept secret and be fairly and lawfully processed for limited purposes in accordance with individual rights.
Users deserve the right to opt out of controlled searches and the ability to view all available content. They should be told how their personal information may be used and empowered to place boundaries around its collection and use. Think of the amount of personal information that can be gleaned from your own Internet search history and how it could be used to target you. It should make you think twice before doing your next search.