Time to crack down on Google?
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When businesses grow big, rich and powerful, expect demands for governments to break them up or clip their regulatory wings. It happened for US Steel, DuPont, Standard Oil, AT&T, Microsoft, etc. And just such a reaction is currently developing re the ascendancy of three computer technology behemoths – Alphabet Inc. (Google search, YouTube), Facebook, and Twitter – that dominate the social media sphere.
Concerns about operations of these businesses appear well-founded, and voluntary self-correction seems unlikely. The proposed governmental remedies are also problematic, so it may prove challenging to find a constructive path forward.
The ensuing discussion will focus on Google & YouTube, but whatever conclusions one reaches about them may be generally applicable for Facebook and Twitter as well.
A. Background – Alphabet Inc. was set up as a holding company to house computer technology bets, but Google remains its principal business. Google doesn’t create a significant amount of content (although it does provide a news service), nor distribute access to content created by others as its subsidiary YouTube (videos) does. Google’s services are useful for people searching content on the web and there are no applicable charges, so how could anyone think there was an antitrust problem?
The search service isn’t really free, of course, as Google users are targeted by numerous internet ads – and the ads said users see are informed by their own search histories, which has enabled Google to become a dominant force in selling on-line advertising. Yahoo Finance profile.
Alphabet Inc. provides online advertising services in the United States, Europe, the Middle East, Africa, the Asia-Pacific, Canada, and Latin America. It offers performance and brand advertising services. The company operates through Google and Other Bets segments. The Google segment offers products, such as Ads, Android, Chrome, Google Cloud, Google Maps, Google Play, Hardware, Search, and YouTube, as well as technical infrastructure. This segment also offers digital content, cloud services, hardware devices, and other miscellaneous products and services. The Other Bets segment includes businesses, including Access, Calico, CapitalG, GV, Verily, Waymo, and X, as well as Internet and television services. Alphabet Inc. was founded in 1998 and is headquartered in Mountain View, California.
There are other search services, which provide equivalent results in most cases, so anyone who desires to bypass Google (yours truly is a long-time user of Yahoo) can do so. Still, Google reportedly controls 88% of the global search market. Statista.com, April 2019.
Given that Microsoft lost an antitrust case several decades ago based on a predatory assault on the Netscape Navigator browser business, it probably suits Google not to have 100% of the search market. What the Microsoft antitrust case taught us, [Sen.] Richard Blumenthal [D-CT] & Tim Wu, New York Times, 5/18/18.
Imagine a world in which Microsoft had been allowed to monopolize the browser business. Holding a triple monopoly (operating system, major applications and the browser), Microsoft would have controlled the future of the web. Google, the tiny start-up, would have faced an unfair fight against Bing. Microsoft-Myspace might have become the default social network instead of Facebook. And who knows whether Netflix or any other online video service would have been started?
As Messrs. Blumenthal & Wu see it, the suit against Microsoft was a success – even though the company wasn’t broken up - helping the internet to evolve in a more constructive manner.
. . . the immediate beneficiaries of the Microsoft antitrust case — namely, Google, Facebook and Amazon — have now become behemoths themselves. But this is how the innovation cycle works: It creates room for saplings to grow into giants, but then prevents the new giants from squashing the next generation of saplings. (Microsoft was itself, in the early 1980s, the beneficiary of another antitrust case, against IBM, the computing colossus of its time.)
So all’s well that ends well? Not necessarily, as the most telling complaint about the computer technology giants is not economic, it’s political. Google and the other companies have the power to mold public opinion by influencing what internet content will be generally accessible, and there is growing evidence that they may be seeking to exercise it.
B. Content distribution – YouTube (a subsidiary of Google) doesn’t create videos, but it accepts videos for posting from others and operates a system to search through or browse videos included in inventory. Video owners are compensated by sharing in the advertising revenues that are generated as visitors to the site click on ads that are displayed.
YouTube acts as an intermediary in the video distribution process, providing free benefits for both the content creators/owners and the viewers, so where’s the potential for abuse?
One possibility is that YouTube will play a role in distributing indecent or obnoxious videos, to the detriment of the general public. They enjoy legal immunity for any alleged harm under existing federal law, however, on grounds that YouTube didn’t create the videos and isn’t responsible for their content.
Another possibility is that YouTube will censor videos by deleting them from the site or placing them on a restricted content list based on supposedly unsuitable content. Either way, harm is inflicted on content creators/owners by eliminating or sharply reducing their share in the advertising revenues.
A major example is the restrictions imposed on over 10% of the videos posted by Prager University, including videos that were pro-American, pro-Israeli, or expressed traditional religious values (such as the prohibition of murder in the Ten Commandments). The alleged basis for this action was that the content of the restricted videos might be unsuitable for younger audiences. As a result, the restricted videos could not be viewed in school classes, libraries, etc.
Prager contends that the only possible justification for the restrictions is ideological, and legal challenges are pending. PragerU files new lawsuit against Google in YouTube “censorship” row, James Rogers, foxnews.com, 1/9/19. Click on the video (4:58) in this story for a Fox and Friends interview of Dennis Prager in which the radio talk host makes his case.
YouTube e-mailed Fox News a statement claiming that “PragerU’s videos weren’t excluded from [classified in?] Restricted Mode because of politics or ideology.” Restricted Mode was described “as an optional feature used by a small subset of users to filter out videos that may include sensitive or mature content,” when it has actually made a significant dent in Prager’s operations. Ibid.
Having watched Prager videos on various subjects and found them to be fact-based, thoughtful and tasteful, we are inclined to believe the Prager lawsuits may have merit. They are pending in California, however, and Google has very deep pockets.
If you feel so disposed, why not help even the scales by signing this petition on Prager’s website?
C. Internet search – A search service doesn’t generate content or help to distribute content, it simply helps people to find what they are looking for. But remember that the amount of content on the internet is vast and ever growing due to the constant posting of new items, and that many people are not sure exactly what they are looking for.
Let’s say you search for “income taxes,” and reach a screen that is identified as the first installment of a total of 87,000,000 results. Many of the entries are about tax preparation services of one kind or another and nothing looks like what you want to find out about, so your search request must be made more specific. Aspect of income taxes – geographic nexus – time period – information or opinions – political slant – etc.
Now type in “US income tax reform,” and you get the first screen of 35,400,000 results, which may include some items of interest, e.g., recaps of the recent tax law changes by the IRS and several accounting/tax preparation firms. But if your interest is lessons learned from the 1986 income tax overhaul, change the request to “1986 income tax reform act” and try again. This time a number of items on the first screen (out of 14,900,000 results) may be of interest, e.g., an informative review of the results of this legislation that the Tax Foundation posted in 2006.
In short, internet searches are an iterative process that can quickly get you into the right frame of reference but won’t necessarily identify the most informative content that is available. Who in the world would look through more than the first two or three screens of 14,900,000 results, and what criteria were used to determine which of the items matching your search criteria showed up in this limited sample?
Thus, links to SAFE’s website are rarely given much prominence – we are after all a minnow in a very big sea – aside from searches for the “Secure America’s Future Economy” website itself. We do report indexing of the site, however, and have noted SAFE items showing up in Yahoo search results from time to time. For example:
•Top Yahoo search result for the exact title of a recent blog entry on the proposed infrastructure package. http://www.s-a-f-e.org/safeblog/files/ef443e824b73882bd6d6133ad19c5624-255.php
•Top Yahoo search result for “fracking revolution, Secure America’s Future Economy” – based on use of the term “fracking revolution” in a SAFE blog entry on the Renewable Fuel Standard. http://www.s-a-f-e.org/safeblog/files/tag-fracking-revolution.php
Google search leads to the SAFE website, but there doesn’t seem to be any parallel for the other prominent mentions in Yahoo search results. This doesn’t prove a Google plot to blacklist SAFE for expressing conservative views, links to our blog entries, etc. may well appear somewhere in their search results, but the fact remains that our posts are effectively invisible for Google users unless they are on SAFE’s mailing list or follow us on Twitter or Facebook.
Other evidence of Google’s political leanings has surfaced, which isn’t so easy to dismiss. Consider a study concluding that biased search results may have contributed to Republican electoral losses in 2018. Google bias may have cost Republicans 3 seats in mid-terms, Joe Sanders, westernjournal.com, 3/24/19.
Google “What party was Abraham Lincoln?” and the unequivocal top answer is National Union Party (with an unfamiliar symbol). This was technically true in 1864, but Lincoln was clearly the founder and leader of the Republican Party that won the 1860 election.
Compare the Yahoo search top answer. “Republican Party (United States), Whig Party (United States), National Union Party (United States)”
Earlier this year, Google created an artificial intelligence advisory council that was supposed to exchange views on this subject and help Google to oversee its AI efforts (use of search algorithms). One of the people invited to join the council was Kay Cole James, who heads the Heritage Foundation.
A major backlash (including the signature of a protesting petition by over 2,500 employees) erupted within Google, and the council was hastily disbanded. Here’s how Ms. James perceived this action. I wanted to help Google make AI more responsible. Instead I was treated with hostility, Kay Cole James, dailysignal.com, 4/11/19.
. . . the Google employees didn’t just attempt to remove me; they greeted the news of my appointment to the council with name-calling and character assassination. They called me anti-immigrant and anti-LGBTQ and a bigot. That was an odd one, because I’m a 69-year-old black woman who grew up fighting segregation.
Subsequently revealed investigation by Project Veritas (James O’Keefe) has uncovered signs of political biases within the Google culture. One example was a leaked internal e-mail attacking several eminent conservatives and using their supposed misconduct to justify countermeasures. Ben Shapiro slams Google over e-mail describing him as a “Nazi,” James Rogers, foxnews.com, 6/16/19.
“Today it is often 1 or 2 steps to nazis. If we understand that PragerU, Jordan Peterson, Ben Shapiro et al are nazis using the dog whistles you mention in step 1. I can receive these recommendations regardless of the content of what I’m looking at, and I have recorded thousands of internet users sharing the same experience,” the email reads.
A Project Veritas video followed, in which a high level executive was quoted as rebutting Sen. Elizabeth Warren’s suggestion that Google should be broken up on anti-trust grounds. The rationale of Jen Gennai, head of Google’s Responsible Innovation team, was that only a big company could provide reliable protection against the president’s reelection. [Google claims that Ms. Gennai’s comments were taken out of context.] Google exec in Project Veritas sting says only big tech can stop “the next Trump situation,” Valerie Richardson, Washington Times, 6/24/19.
The 30-minute video also featured an interview of an anonymous whistleblower (image and voice distorted) to the effect that Google has developed a “mind control” system that is reminiscent of the methods predicted by George Orwell in his book “1984.” Ibid.
“Right after Donald Trump won the election in 2016, the company did a complete 180 in what they thought was important,” he said. “Before, they thought self-expression, giving everyone a voice was important, but now they’re like hey, there’s a lot of hate, and because there’s a lot of hate and misogyny and racism, that’s the reason Donald Trump got elected. And so we need to fix that.”
How? “We need to start policing our users because we don’t like to have an outcome like that. We don’t want to have an outcome like that happen again,” he said.
Several concrete examples are cited by the whistleblower of Google search results that have seemingly been adjusted to address perceived social injustices (aka political issues). Here’s one that we verified:
If you Google “women can,” the first screen results are mainly action oriented, e.g., running marathons, participating in leadership training groups, and closing the “gender parity gap in Hollywood, media and entertainment.”
For “men can,” the main focus is on exercising restraint, e.g., prevent violence, stop rape, and 9 ways to help close the gender gap at work.
Project Veritas posted the video on YouTube, which took it down based on alleged privacy concerns. YouTube pulls Project Veritas video on Google bias, James Barrett, dailywire.com, 6/25/19. For those who might be interested, however, there is an alternate link.
Google has maintained that its search results are based on the search algorithms in use, without manual intervention, so the political leanings of its employees don’t matter. Others have challenged the no manual intervention claim. Report: Google CEO Sundar Pichai lied to Congress that Google does not blacklist conservatives, Warner Todd Huston, godfatherpolitics.com, 7/3/19.
In any case, as SAFE member Davis Jefferson explains, Google is responsible for devising the algorithms that are used. (The day may come when computers start writing the algorithms, but apparently we’re not there quite yet.)
Artificial Intelligence is not some magical concept where the computer is an all-knowing, all-seeing oracle (with apologies to Mr. Larry Ellison). It is, in most basic terms, a computer program or group of interacting programs consisting of complex systems of algorithms which process criteria and then make automatic decisions based on the results of that processing.
Algorithms are step-by-step procedures for solving a mathematical problem, and just about anything can be described in mathematical terms, including internet search criteria. Like an elaborate If-Then statement from a spreadsheet (or a 100-level coding class on any college campus – and these days, many high schools), where IF certain criteria are met, THEN certain other things will be done, such as: “show left-leaning results first.” Google may or may not be slanting its search results based on political biases, but such a result is certainly feasible.
D. Summing up - Google has a lot of explaining to do, it seems to us, and has not been reacting well to constructive criticism. Tune in on July 22 (your faithful scribe will be taking a one-week break due to family vacation plans) for some thoughts on how government policy makers should address this situation.
#There is no way to legislate or regulate morality or political bias. – SAFE director
Comment: This may be so, but doesn’t the government have to do something?
#What is going on with the private censorship by the tech companies is intolerable... and it is not accidental. A part of the answer is the creation of many, many "judicial watches", with sufficient funds to liberally go after abuses. – SAFE member (DE)
# What can be done about computer tech bias? Government regulation is not the Conservative way, and while Liberals may tell a good story about regulating big business (it’s what their audience likes to hear), they are unlikely to take effective action against firms that are on their side. Maybe Conservatives need to fight fire with fire, e.g., by starting a right-leaning search engine to compete with Google. In keeping with such a government-hands-off approach, any civil protections currently afforded by law to computer tech firms should be rescinded. – SAFE member (DE)
#It’s probably easier for me than most people, but I boycott Google and YouTube. – SAFE member (DE)