- 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.
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'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.
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 than 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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