Google is perhaps the biggest if not the biggest tech corporation that has significant influence. Google has search, advertisements, an entire media wing on YouTube, and operating systems (Android and Chrome OS). Over time this has lead to users slowly but surely resigning themselves to a wave of Google services whether it be Gmail or the Android platform as a whole. What started out as a simple search tool has catapulted into a way of living your life online if you so choose.
When Google began their motto was “don’t be evil.” This motto gained prominence during the Microsoft antitrust cases. After this the technology industry was looking for a positive role model (Apple at the time was still focused on iPods and Macs). Google was slowly branching out into spaces like email and wide spread web advertising. This motto allowed those wanting to use Gmail or any Google service to feel relatively safe when their data left their computer. For the longest time we were told Google was benign in terms of having a negative effect on the web. This is no longer the case.
Recently Google turned the page and began engaging in practices that would be fine for any other corporation. However, considering that Google controls a vast majority of the online search landscape, advertising turf, and a sizeable portion of the worlds smartphones this is a problem. It was recently revealed that Google spent $5.4m lobbying the U.S. federal government in the first quarter of 2015. This is the largest amount for any single corporation, this outpaces any single company including the typical corporations in the oil and defence industry. Also, perhaps more frightening is that Google is researching the ability to rank websites based on truthfulness. When a corporation controls our email, smartphones, and search a great deal of trust must be bestowed onto that corporation. With actions such as these Google is attempting to mould the web into its own vision which ultimately does not preserve the intended unfiltered nature of the web.
Touching on Google’s lobbying first, Google has its own set of political interests. A corporation should not be blamed for having a political viewpoint, however, when the corporation has as much influence in the users experience as Google alarm bells should go off. Google’s interests are not in going to be in sync with all of their users. Google has lobbied on global trade issues, immigration reform, and workplace policies to name a few in addition to technology issues. Google’s CEO has also reportedly met with President Obama a number of times in the last few years. While Google should not be faulted for wanting to make the world a better place, their lobbying should not be carried out by the same arm that handles end user services. Instead, a separate entity (non-profit or otherwise) should be created that advocates for these changes not only in the U.S. but worldwide. This would allow Google itself to focus on end-user services without any risk of politicization.
Google has long used secret algorithms to calculate the position of web pages in search results. What made Google different is that they actually looked at the content rather than meta keywords. In general a page that is well designed, has decent content, and makes an effort to put content first will do well on Google. As mentioned previously Google wants to extend this to website truthfulness. According to a research paper, facts about the website in question are gathered using common information gathering techniques. It’s also worth noting that based on increasing truthfulness it will be possible to have your website contribute facts to the fact database. These facts are then compared to a database of known facts and a truthfulness ranking is calculated. The question is, truthfulness to whom? It’s no secret that the web in general is a breeding ground for collective group think. If enough websites post a fact as true does this outweigh a strong source that calls the fact a fraud? Google certainly has the computer power to aggregate and cross reference website articles in order to generate facts and create truthfulness rankings, but deciding what users see based on truthfulness rather than raw data goes a step too far.
Google is clearly on a political bent and the users are along for the ride. If this was the 1990s and Google was in Microsoft’s shoes the world would be dearly concerned. Google’s intentions on the lobbying front are probably benign and aimed to allow themselves to create better services. The addition of truth based search should it ever arrive serves to do the same purpose but will lower the results of dissenting viewpoints (enough of this already happens on the web). This is downright horrible and in no way represents the Google of the late 1990s or early 2000s. Search engines and the corporations that run them should be politically neutral.
In light of recent events I have started pondering alternatives to Google. The most apparent search alternative is Bing since it does provide good results and Microsoft does not appear to want to change what their users ultimately see. If you wish to go further and replace your browser and email client I would recommend pure open source software, not backed by any corporate entities. If you wish to kick Google to the curb you can grab a copy of your data using Google’s Takeout service and be free from any future interference.