Guest Opinion by Kip Hansen
The world’s most influential information-gateway — GOOGLE Search — has recently made the decision to abandon its long-standing primary corporate policies: 1) “Don’t Be Evil” and 2) Provide internet search results based upon neutral algorithms, not human judgment; unbiased and objective.
Some may object to the charge that they have abandoned their oft-repeated mantra “Don’t Be Evil” — but to be clear, this has always meant, as Eric Schmidt (Executive Director of Google at the time) stated in a Wired profile in 2003, “Evil,” he said, “is what Sergey says is evil” (referring to Sergey Brin, who co-founded Google together with Larry Page).
As for the second point,
“As Stanford’s Terry Winograd, Page and Brin’s former professor and a consultant on Gmail, explains to Ken Auletta, “The idea that somebody at Google could know better than the consumer what’s good for the consumer is not forbidden.” He describes his former students’ attitude as “a form of arrogance: ‘We know better.’” …..
“[Larry] Page and [Sergey] Brin designed Google to avoid human judgment in rating the relevance of web pages. Recounting Google’s original design, Steven Levy describes the founders’ opinion that “having a human being determine the ratings was out of the question,” not just because “it was inherently impractical,” but also because “humans were unreliable. Only algorithms — well drawn, efficiently executed, and based on sound data — could deliver unbiased results.”
— Alex White, in “Google.gov”
In Alex White’s long discussion of the links and affinity between the Obama administration and Google executives, he notes “The common theme [as expressed by Obama and Google execs] is that we [the general public] make wrong decisions not because the world is inherently complex but because most people are self-interested and dumb — except for the self-anointed enlighteners, that is.” Like Obama, Google has appointed itself to be The Great Enlightener.
In a conference at MIT earlier this year, Obama said that tech companies such as Google “are shaping our culture in powerful ways. And the most powerful way in which that culture is being shaped right now is the balkanization of our public conversation,” contributing to the nation’s fragmentation — “. . . essentially we now have entirely different realities that are being created, with not just different opinions but now different facts —different sources, different people who are considered authoritative. It’s — since we’re at M.I.T., to throw out a big word — it’s epistemological. It’s a baseline issue.”
Let’s dive into that statement just a bit to make a point. President Obama said “…different facts —different sources, different people who are considered authoritative.”. What he says here is correct — it is a matter of which facts, what sources and whose expert opinion. There is not only one fact or one set of facts about any complex topic affecting society today. [ I wrote about this in the essay What’s Wrong With Alternative Facts?] Obama acknowledges that Google (and other technology companies) “are shaping our culture in powerful ways….” contributing to “the balkanization of our public conversation” and the nation’s fragmentation. I will point out, needlessly, that is bad thing.
Bal·kan·ize [ Balkanized, Balkanization ]
To divide (a region or body) into smaller mutually hostile states or groups.
What exactly has Google done?
Google has decided, under the false flag of fighting “fake news” 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”. “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. 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.” [quotes in paragraphs above from Google.gov.]
I would add, there are also profound social and scientific ramifications as well.
According to The Guardian, Ben Gomes, vice-president of engineering, Google Search, said in a blogpost in 2017: “We’ve adjusted our signals to help surface more authoritative pages and demote low-quality content … “
What they have done appears to be a public good. They’ve moved “authoritative sources” to the top search results. The question we need to ask is: “How does this play out in the Real World?” In the real world it means that the worldview, the political bias, the social preferences, the positions taken in various ideological and scientific controversies — as decided by top Google Executives — have been virtually hard-coded into Google’s search algorithms. No longer is Google returning “unbiased and objective results”. Google search returns now, at the top of search results, only what Google’s executives think you should be able to find, only what they want you to see, only what they think all “right-thinking” people (like themselves, of course) would want. Google has created a reality in which search results reflect, exactly, the opinions and views held by top Google executives on important societal issues. One side of each issue will dominate the first few pages of searches on these important issues.
Amanda Ripley of Solutions Journalism Network, recently wrote “Once we get drawn in (to a polarized issue), the conflict takes control. Complexity collapses, and the us-versus-them narrative sucks the oxygen from the room. Over time, people grow increasingly certain of the obvious rightness of their views and increasingly baffled by what seems like unreasonable, malicious, extreme or crazy beliefs and actions of others,” …. “The lesson for journalists (or anyone) working amidst intractable conflict: complicate the narrative. First, complexity leads to a fuller, more accurate story. Secondly, it boosts the odds that your work will matter — particularly if it is about a polarizing issue. When people encounter complexity, they become more curious and less closed off to new information. They listen, in other words.” Attempts to simplify complex issues by exposing the public to only one side of an issue leads to more, not less, conflict and Obama’s “balkanization of our public conversation”.
As far back as September last year, the New York Times was reporting on Google’s apparent tampering: “Accusations that Google has tampered with search results are not uncommon and date back to the earliest days of its search engine. But they are taking on new life amid concerns that technology behemoths are directly — or indirectly — censoring controversial subjects in their response to concerns over so-called fake news and the 2016 presidential election.”
How many issues?
We don’t know yet — but Climate Change results have been tampered with in a glaringly obvious manner — all web sites even slightly contrarian have been “de-ranked” and “demoted” apparently as “low-quality” (read instead — “containing Google-unacceptable points-of-view”) and are browser-pages down the list, if they appear at all.
Suspected tampering includes, but is not limited to,: Abortion, Gun Control, climate change/global warming, US Illegal immigration, Gender issues, feral cats (an tiny issue for which Google was dinged in the press), health and sugar…these were found with a very quick check. It will be a major undertaking requiring a massive Citizen Science project to determine just how many, and which, controversial topics have been tampered with, topics into which Google has injected their own executive’s human judgement on which ideas, which opinions and which facts should be considered authoritative and which should be actively suppressed by “de-ranking” and “demoting”. Once the extent of the damage is known, it will take a broad-based social movement to get Google to take its fingers off the scales and let the Internet decide for itself.
A recent New York Times article, titled “The Case Against Google”, quipped “Google has succeeded where Genghis Khan, communism and Esperanto all failed: It dominates the globe. Though estimates vary by region, the company now accounts for an estimated 87 percent of online searches worldwide. ….. …When does a mega-company’s behavior become so brazen that it violates the law?”
Just this week, actually. The New York Times carried the story “E.U. Fines Google $5.1 Billion in Android Antitrust Case”. This case was not about tampering with Search Results — this case was about Google “abusing its power in the mobile phone market”.
“Google has used Android as a vehicle to cement the dominance of its search engine,” said Margrethe Vestager, Europe’s antitrust chief. “These practices have denied rivals the chance to innovate and compete on the merits. They have denied European consumers the benefits of effective competition in the important mobile sphere.”
The European Union fined $ 5.1 billion (4.34 billion euros) in this case. Last June, the EU fined Google “$2.7 billion for unfairly favoring some of its own services over those of rivals.”
“Google’s search engine has played a decisive role in determining what most of us read, use and purchase online,” said Shivaun Raff, a co-founder of Foundem, a British comparison-shopping site that was the first company to file a complaint against Google. “Left unchecked, there are few limits to this gatekeeper power.””
For a full version of Raff’s saga, see here.
Yes, Google dominates the Search engine field. By how much?
The charts above show that Google Search, worldwide, has over 75% of the total search traffic market share and over 90% of the mobile search traffic share. These figures are distorted — Google is banned in China, thus searches there by necessity shift to the Chinese-language-only Baidu. For rest-of-world figures, add Baidu’s share to Google’s share for a clearer picture.
Note very well, please: there is very little to be gained by comparing search results between the available search engines. Where search engines are not owned outright by Google, many/most depend on ”Google Ranking” as part of their own search algorithms, thus Google’s “de-ranking” of a web site or a whole social viewpoint affects all of them. Microsoft’s bing has long been known to “sneak a peek” at Google rankings and include them in its search algorithm. Yahoo! has a deal to use Microsoft bing’s output in its search results (“Bing will continue to provide the underlying non-paid search results and technology for Yahoo.“) So it reads like this: Google tampers with its algorithm, bing peeks at the Google results and quasi-mirrors them, Yahoo! uses bing’s results. The remaining big English-language player is Ask.com, who’s market share is so small it doesn’t even make the chart. They license someone else’s search results for general web searches, but don’t disclose who that is.
Questions for discussion:
Is it important that Google has tampered with it’s search algorithm on social, political, and scientific issues?
Is it socially significant that Google has tampered with it’s search algorithm on social, political, and scientific issues?
Is it politically important that Google has tampered with it’s search algorithm on social, political, and scientific issues?
Is it important to Science and Science Education that Google is tampered with it’s search algorithm on social, political, and scientific issues?
What are the implications for Freedom of Expression? for Free Flow of Information? for Democratic Values? for the Ethos of the World Wide Web?
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Attribution: The featured image is adapted in part from a book cover for the Orwell title “1984” designed by nusentinsaino.deviantart.com.
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This is a Commentary, meaning that it contains my personal opinions about a topic being raised in the press about Google’s behavior and changes it has made to its search algorithm over the last year or so.
I strongly suggest reading as many of the linked news articles as you have time for…I consider this to be a very important and significant issue for all users of the World Wide Web.
This is a follow-up to my recent piece: “NEWS FLASH: World’s Library Sabotaged”. The next installment in this series will cover the specific effects and implications for the topic of Climate Science — and why it matters for WUWT.
I expect that many will disagree with my viewpoints expressed above — that’s good, it means I have hit on something that readers can engage with.
Let me end with a conclusion by Adam White (his piece linked above) “… the pressure for Google to adopt ever more expansive interpretations of “exploitative,” “authoritative,” and “what people are looking for” will doubtless rise.” The pressure did rise and we are seeing the results above….Google as Arbiter of Truth, Google as Big Brother Knows Best.
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LINKS IN THIS ESSAY: [added 22 July 5:28 pm ET]
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