Facebook and Google may dominate our virtual lives, but it’s Facebook that catches most of the flak. From its role as a platform for fake news to its wildly exaggerated claims about the reach of its advertising to its just-revealed involvement with Russian trolls during the 2016 campaign, Mark Zuckerberg’s creation has become the behemoth that everyone loves to hate.
Now, though, it’s Google’s turn for some long-overdue criticism. It started last week, when The New York Times reported that Barry Lynn, a critic of monopolies, had been fired by a think tank called the New American Foundation after he wrote approvingly of European antitrust regulators for hitting Google with a $2.7 billion fine. Google is a major funder of New America.
Though the head of New America, Anne-Marie Slaughter, denied there was a direct link, Google took a major public-relations hit. Both Lynn and one of his associates, the well-known political activist and legal scholar Zephyr Teachout, wrote anti-Google commentaries for The Washington Post’s community blogging platform, PostEverything. Lynn’s was provocatively headlined “I criticized Google. It got me fired. That’s how corporate power works.” Lynn and Teachout quickly set up a new organization independent of New America called Citizens Against Monopoly that will almost certainly give them a more visible platform than they had before.
The episode should spark a re-examination of Google’s ubiquity in our daily lives. Most of us depend on it not just daily but minute by minute for our email, our calendars, and, most of all, search. Google Chrome is the most widely used web browser. The company has also extended its octopus-like reach into classrooms across the country.
Perhaps the best way to think about Google’s behavior is that it is beneficial but not benign. That is, we all benefit from the services Google offers — mainly for free, although there is a cost to everything, as the company hoovers up our data so that it can assault our eyeballs with advertising tailored to our interests. Google’s unofficial motto, “Don’t Be Evil,” has long since become more of a laugh line than something anyone takes seriously. But I don’t want to live without Google. Do you? (I first wrote about Google and privacy for The Boston Phoenix in 2005. I think the piece has held up rather well.)
Josh Marshall wrote a long, thoughtful essay the other day about the role of Google in publishing Talking Points Memo, the liberal politics-and-policy site he runs. Marshall has tried to make TPM less dependent on Google and Facebook by moving to a subscription-based model. Good thing — according to some estimates, nearly 100 percent of new digital advertising in 2016 went to the two companies. Yet he still relies to a considerable degree on ads brokered by Google — not to mention Gmail, search, and metrics. “It’s a bit like being assimilated by the Borg,” Marshall wrote. “You get cool new powers. But having been assimilated, if your implants were ever removed, you’d certainly die. That basically captures our relationship to Google.”
If you have more than a passing interest in the subject then you should read Marshall’s entire essay. But I was particularly struck by his description of a problem TPM ran into with Gmail. Because the internal TPM email system, powered by Gmail, forwards all incoming email —including spam — to individual TPM employees, Google’s algorithms somehow identified TPM as a spammer and shut down its access to Gmail. This happened even though TPM was paying for a premium version of Gmail.
I’ve been there. A few years ago I ran Google ads on my blog, Media Nation, when they suddenly disappeared because of some unspecified violation. To this day I have no idea what happened. I knew someone who knew someone and thus was able to get the ads restored. But without that connection, I doubt I would have had any recourse.
And it gets worse. Google has been working on an automated system to flag offensive comments, which is surely a worthwhile venture. But according to Violet Blue, writing for Engadget, the software flags “I am a gay black woman” as toxic while “I am a man” slides through. Presumably the system, known as Perspective and developed in partnership with The New York Times and Google, will be refined before it is unleashed upon the public. Still, this is the kind of stuff we need constantly to watch out for.
Which brings me back to where we started. The Europeans’ enforcement action against Google may have been wise or unwise, but at least it was rooted in an understanding that the company controls so much of our communications infrastructure that it has responsibilities not just to its shareholders but to the public. Unfortunately, in the United States there is little stomach among either Republicans or Democrats to consider similar action.
The rise of Google and Facebook represents nothing less than a revolution in how we interact with the world. These companies have given us great power; but ultimately that power is controlled by secretive agendas aimed at enhancing the bottom line rather than the public discourse. You might, with difficulty, extricate yourself from Facebook. But how are you going to give up Google?