What’s Happened to Google?

For some in the tech industry, Google’s reputation for integrity has frayed.

“It seems as if no company, executive, or institution truly understands how to survive and prosper in the internet age. Except Google.” –Jeff Jarvis, What Would Google Do? (2009)

If you had asked members of the tech industry in the mid 2000’s which company most embodied trustworthiness, transparency, integrity, and overall geek-friendly values, you might have received a variety of responses. But one was sure to dominate the rest: Google.

By 2005 or so, Google’s company culture had become famous for, among other things, its disarmingly simple motto: “Don’t be evil.” In context, the statement was a differentiator; it was understood to be a response to the dominant and intractible tech companies which had, over the course of several decades, gradually and unapologetically acquired greater control of our lives with little apparent accountability. Google’s motto has become so ingrained in our cultural consciousness that it even has its own Wikipedia page.

Taken literally, the motto sets a fairly low bar. And for a company of Google’s size and complexity, any attempt to maintain a track record of corporate behavior that’s consistently virtuous is certain to disappoint. But recently, Google has been the subject of several reports which are disturbingly at odds with the company’s values as understood, and which suggest willful attempts to censor its critics with an uncharacteristic sense of impunity.

For some in the tech industry, Google’s reputation for integrity has frayed.

This recent story by Kashmir Hill, via Gizmodo, portrays Google as a company committed to using its position as the most powerful search engine as leverage to convince publishers to install its marketing products on their websites (in this case, the now-anachronistic “Google Plus” button), under threat of demerits by Google’s search rankings. When Hill wrote a story about this remarkable fact, which she independently confirmed with Google’s own PR team, Google threatened her publisher with a lawsuit, and the article – along with any trace of it in Google’s cache – was removed. Searching for the story yielded no results, apparently having been scrubbed from Google’s own database. (In a response, as justification for its actions, Google claims the article included details which violated an NDA.)

Granted, Hill’s is a five-year-old story which has only recently come to light. But in many ways, the article’s five-year concealment is the real story. How many other companies could have successfully kept something that was actually published, and later removed, under wraps for so long?

In response to Hill’s article, other journalists have come forward with stories of Google engaging in legal threats and other efforts to intimidate in response to critical coverage. Among them is Australian journalist Claire Connelly, who shared a similar experience.

Google’s power to quell unwelcome criticism doesn’t end at hidden search results or non-disclosure agreements. Google has emerged as a major funder of numerous institutions, and its executives and board members wield remarkable influence throughout the cultural and political landscape, particularly among progressive organizations. To critique Google can come with significant and unforeseen professional risks, especially among the very organizations tasked with supporting internet freedom issues.

Barry Lynn, a writer and journalist who covers economic issues, discovered those risks first-hand, when his research on the implications of monopoly power structures among large technologies companies was published while he directed the Open Markets Program at the Google-funded New America Foundation. After publication of Lynn’s research, which suggested that quasi-monopolies like Google and Amazon have destabilizing societal effects and stifle innovation, he was fired and the Open Markets Program was shut down.

Investigations by the New York Times and The Intercept have shown that Lynn’s firing, and the termination of the Open Markets Program, were likely pressured by Google, based on communications with Alphabet’s Chairman, Eric Schmidt.

Google’s power and influence is certain to grow. It has, along with Facebook, acquired an astounding 63% US market share of internet advertising revenue in 2017 (projected to approach 70% by 2019), resulting in an effective duopoly which monetizes the internet’s content and users.

Google and its peers represent a new breed of tech company which has come to dominate our lives. These massive companies blur the lines of how large corporations have traditionally been categorized, with origin stories couched as startups who have succeeded against all odds, and beyond even their founders’ wildest imaginations. They have become woven into the very fabric of society; it’s difficult to imagine a contemporary world without Google, Amazon, Facebook, or Apple.

The ideologies of even the most virtuous large companies are vulnerable to erosion as their founders’ influence dissipates into more traditional modes of corporate governance, beholden to the pressures of future growth and increasing shareholder value. Google is a large, complex organization which, like many of its peers, has arguably grown faster than the legal and social frameworks that might otherwise mitigate its outsized influence.

In a 2014 interview with The Financial Times, Larry Page admitted that Google’s original mission statement – to “organise the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful” – was probably a bit outdated, adding: “The societal goal is our primary goal. We’ve always tried to say that with Google. I think we’ve not succeeded as much as we’d like.” That presumably includes AI, robotics, wearables, and services fueled by ever-greater access to personal data, and the ads that run on them.

If we are to permit Google to pursue that more expansive vision – “the societal goal,” as Page puts it – we must demand its adherence to those standards which supposedly underpinned its founding, and the values we hold as a free society. The stakes are simply too high.

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