Google, Censor of the World?

The debate over the role of the tech giants and how they influence public speech is ongoing, and a huge subject. This is a First Amendment frontier: the tech companies (Google, Amazon, Facebook, Twitter, Apple) are not arms of the government, but they largely control the public square. It is somewhat as though, in the 18th Century, manufacturers of printing presses had dictated that flyers could only be printed on them by approved political organizations. It never occurred to the Founders that such a thing could happen, but something like it is a daily 21st Century reality.

We are a little slow in noting this Wall Street Journal story from last Friday: “How Google Interferes With Its Search Algorithms and Changes Your Results.”

Over time, Google has increasingly re-engineered and interfered with search results to a far greater degree than the company and its executives have acknowledged, a Wall Street Journal investigation has found.

Those actions often come in response to pressure from businesses, outside interest groups and governments around the world. They have increased sharply since the 2016 election and the rise of online misinformation, the Journal found.
More than 100 interviews and the Journal’s own testing of Google’s search results reveal:

• Google made algorithmic changes to its search results that favor big businesses over smaller ones, and in at least one case made changes on behalf of a major advertiser, eBay Inc., contrary to its public position that it never takes that type of action. The company also boosts some major websites, such as Inc. and Facebook Inc., according to people familiar with the matter.

• Google engineers regularly make behind-the-scenes adjustments to other information the company is increasingly layering on top of its basic search results. These features include auto-complete suggestions, boxes called “knowledge panels” and “featured snippets,” and news results, which aren’t subject to the same company policies limiting what engineers can remove or change.

• Despite publicly denying doing so, Google keeps blacklists to remove certain sites or prevent others from surfacing in certain types of results. These moves are separate from those that block sites as required by U.S. or foreign law, such as those featuring child abuse or with copyright infringement, and from changes designed to demote spam sites, which attempt to game the system to appear higher in results.

• In auto-complete, the feature that predicts search terms as the user types a query, Google’s engineers have created algorithms and blacklists to weed out more-incendiary suggestions for controversial subjects, such as abortion or immigration, in effect filtering out inflammatory results on high-profile topics.
THE JOURNAL’S FINDINGS undercut one of Google’s core defenses against global regulators worried about how it wields its immense power—that the company doesn’t exert editorial control over what it shows users. Regulators’ areas of concern include anticompetitive practices, political bias and online misinformation.

Far from being autonomous computer programs oblivious to outside pressure, Google’s algorithms are subject to regular tinkering from executives and engineers who are trying to deliver relevant search results, while also pleasing a wide variety of powerful interests and driving its parent company’s more than $30 billion in annual profit.

Much more at the link, if you can access it without being a Journal subscriber. One theme that comes through is that much of Google’s apparent censorship–or, more politely, tweaking of search results–dates from the 2016 election, and hysteria among Democrats with regard to the now-discredited theory that Russian disinformation somehow played an important part.

As I have written before, there is no obvious solution to the problem of what to do about the fact that access to information is almost 100% in the hands of liberals, like those who dominate Google. (When Project Veritas publishes a video featuring a Google whistleblower, no one imagines that the whistleblower might be a liberal.) Some advocate antitrust action, but existing antitrust law is inadequate to the task. It would take either a new statute or action by the Supreme Court, breaking new ground, to make political bias and influence the basis for a remedy like breaking up Google, Facebook or Twitter. And even if those companies were broken up, what would change, if the employees of the new companies were just another bunch of liberals? Which they surely would be, if located in Silicon Valley.

As far as I know, we at Power Line have no grievance against Google. We tend to rate highly in search results. Who knows, though, maybe we deserve to rate more highly still, but we have no reason to believe that is the case. But the problem of liberal gatekeepers having control over nearly all access to information, much as they did during the much-derided New York Times/CBS/ABC/NBC/Associated Press era, isn’t going away any time soon.

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