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Google’s control of the search market deserves more scrutiny

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Donald TrumpSpencer
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  • President Trump attacked Google on Tuesday for using
    its power over search to supposedly suppress conservative
    outlets and positive news about him.
  • He did not provide any evidence to back up those
    charges.
  • But the president wasn’t wrong to take aim at Google’s
    control.
  • Google dominates search and has become a major provider
    of traffic to news sites.
  • As such, it shapes what news and information we are
    aware of and have access to. 
  • It’s long past time to limit the company’s power and
    force it to be more transparent.

As president, Donald Trump has often been right for the wrong
reasons.

His
broadside Tuesday morning against Google
is yet another
example.

In a pair
of tweets,
Trump took the search giant to task for supposedly suppressing
news from conservative outlets and positive stories about him.
Charging that Google’s system is “rigged” against him, he vowed
to do something about it — an assertion that was later reinforced
by White House economic advisor Larry Kudlow, who
said the administration was looking into regulating Google
.

“They are controlling what we can & cannot see,” Trump said
in one of his tweets. “This is a very serious situation-will be
addressed!”

On its face, Trump’s assertion that Google’s news results are
biased against him looks spurious, for all sorts of reasons, not
least of which is that whether an outlet is considered liberal or
conservative is highly subjective, often depending on the
political views of individual readers. Indeed, the president’s
charge that Google is biased against him looks — like much of his
attacks against various companies, institutions, and individuals
— self-serving. Trump generally doesn’t care if something is a
problem — like unwarranted surveillance by US spy agencies or the
power of federal prosecutors — unless it’s a problem for him
personally.

Even so, Trump’s not wrong to be suspicious of Google. His
statement about the company’s power is actually spot on — it does
very much control the flow of information online. And the truth
is that it has used that power in suspect, even illegal ways.

Many
rushed to defend
Google from Trump’s attacks, as if an
organization whose corporate parent is the second most valuable
company in the world and that has a monopoly on multiple markets,
were somehow a maiden in distress. I think we ought to use this
moment instead to examine how much power Google has — and do
something about it.

Trump’s attack seems to have been spurred by a flawed report

As seems to happen regularly, Trump apparently launched his
attack on Google in response to something he saw on a
conservative TV outlet. Monday night, on
his segment for Fox Business News
, Lou Dobbs highlighted a

report
from right-wing website PJ Media that asserted that
96% of the search results for “Trump” on Google News are links to
stories from liberal media outlets.


Lou Dobbs from a August 27, 2018, segment on his Fox Business show about Google's supposed censorship of conservative news outlets.
On a segment of his Fox Business show on Monday, Lou
Dobbs highlighted a report about Google’s supposed bias in its
news search results.

Fox
Business


The PJ Media report was flawed at best. Some might even call it
“fake news.”

As even its author, Paula Bolyard, acknowledged, the 96% figure
came not from a scientific study of search results, but from her
own noodling around on the site. So even if you accept her other
assertions, we shouldn’t accept that her conclusion really
represents reality.

But there are other reasons to be dubious of Bolyard’s
conclusion. The 96% figure was derived in part from the
classification system she used to place news sites along a
liberal-to-conservative continuum. That
classification system
was put together by another
right-leaning media figure, and many people outside of the
conservative bubble would likely find it problematic. If you
consider CNBC to be a liberal outlet and CNN to be more left-wing
than The Intercept, you really don’t have a very good sense of
media bias, in my book.

Even if we could all agree on her classification system and her
findings were in sync with what a scientific study would
conclude, that wouldn’t necessarily imply that Google is biased
against Trump or conservative outlets.

News outlets in general tend to focus on negative news more than
positive stories — regardless of who is president. Google’s
algorithms tend to favor established, frequently cited and what
the company says are “high quality” news sources — a preference
that doesn’t necessarily reflect political bias, but may lead the
site to promote stories from CNN or the Washington Post over,
say, Infowars.

Regardless of all these factors that complicate or even
contradict PJ Media’s conclusions, our no-nuance president took
the 96% figure and hit Twitter with it, using it as the
foundation of his tweet attack on Google. The figure was proof
positive that Google was “hiding” positive stories about him and
shutting out conservative outlets, possibly illegally, he
charged. It’s time to do something about it, he said — leaving
exactly what kind of “something” that might be completely
undefined.

For its part, Google
said its search results aren’t politically biased.

There are legitimate concerns about Google’s power

Here’s the thing. As ridiculous and potentially dangerous it is
for Trump to make policy based on a single flawed news report he
saw on TV — and then likely only because of his own personal
grudges — there is a legitimate concern about how Google’s search
algorithm works.


Google I/O 2018 sundar pichai
Sundar Pichai, CEO of Google, which denied the
accusations of bias.

Stephen
Lam/Reuters


Google’s search engine is basically a black box. Yes, the company
does give some guidance on how it ranks results. And, yes, there
are plenty of companies that have made it their business to study
the algorithm so they can figure out how to get Google to list
their partners’ websites and advertisements more prominently.

But Google often changes its algorithm without telling anyone.
And nobody outside the company has a really detailed
understanding of how it works or exactly what it prioritizes and
why.

Lots of companies, of course, keep their core business
methodology or intellectual property secret (think of Coca-Cola’s
famously secret recipe). But Google isn’t just any company. It
dominates web search; depending on how you look at the market,
its share is between
70%
and 90%.
As such, it in a very real way shapes our experience of the
internet. If Google doesn’t list a site in its first page or two
of search results, it may as well not exist.

And the company
has become a major force in the news industry
. Google

passed Facebook last year
as the leading source of traffic to
news publishers’ websites, according to Chartbeat. The search
giant now accounts for the majority of the traffic to publishers’
websites from mobile devices.

So Google isn’t just shaping what we see online, but what we see
of the news. If a story isn’t promoted on Google, there’s a good
chance you won’t see it or hear about it.

Google has abused its power in the past

That kind of power would be dangerous no matter who held it,
regardless of their motivations or political inclinations. But
it’s especially disturbing that Google in particular has that
kind of control.

That’s because Google has shown repeatedly that it’s not to be
trusted, that when it comes to what information gets promoted on
its site and services, it is not necessarily a neutral party.


Margrethe Vestager
Margrethe Vestager, the
European Union’s competition commissioner, who has led the bloc’s
investigations into Google’s anti-competitive
practices.

Reuters

Last year, for example, the European Commission
found that Google illegally promoted its shopping search
results
over rival shopping search engines and fined the
company $2.7 billion. In June, the EU
fined the company another $5
billion after finding that it
used the dominance of its Android operating system to promote its
own apps. In much the same way as if it had listed something
prominently in its search results, the company made sure that its
search app and Chrome browser were among the first apps consumers
saw on their on Android phones.

What’s more, Google and its parent, Alphabet, have taken overt
political stands. They’ve been public about their support for
relatively liberal immigration policies. They support gay rights.
Like much of Silicon Valley, they backed last year’s tax law.

That’s not to say that Google’s search results are informed by
its political leanings. But we shouldn’t just assume that they’re
not — or simply accept the company’s denials that they aren’t.

It’s long past time to rein in Google

Instead, we should demand and require more. Google ought to be
required to be more transparent about how its search algorithm
works. We ought to know exactly how it ranks news stories and
websites. We as citizens deserve to know in detail the judgments
Google is making about what is newsworthy and what sources are
trustworthy, about what is news. 

We deserve to know the judgments Google is making about what is
news.

It could well be that Google’s judgments are unimpeachable, and
lack any kind of political bias. But we won’t know until we know.

Of course, Google’s argument has always been that it needs to
keep the mechanics of its search engine under wraps to prevent
“bad actors” — from spammers to individuals with malicious
agendas — from gaming the search results. 

But that assumes there might not be ways to create a system to
vet, or audit, Google’s search algorithm by trusted parties
without making the engine’s blueprint visible to the entire
world.

On top of that, regulators ought to be working to promote a more
competitive marketplace. No company should have the ability
Google has to control what news and information we see. Questions
about how its algorithm works wouldn’t matter as much if people
had legitimate alternatives for internet search.

Unfortunately, its control over search is just one facet of the
company’s power and dominance over our online lives. Because of
that, it’s long past time for policymakers
to start moving to break up the company
.

Donald Trump is almost certainly more worried about how Google
may be hurting him that how it’s affecting the rest of us. But if
his Twitter tirade leads to some real limitations on the search
giant’s power, he’ll have done us all a favor.

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