Googlephobia: Part 6 – The Left Begins to Turn on Google

by on November 29, 2008 · 36 comments

Over the past year or so, many market-oriented critics of Google, like Scott Cleland and Richard Bennett, have criticized the company for aligning itself with Left-leaning causes and intellectuals. Lately, however, what I find interesting is how many leading leftist intellectuals and organizations have begun turning on the company and becoming far more critical of the America’s greatest capitalist success story of the past decade. The reason this concerns me is that I see a unholy Right-Left alliance slowly forming that could lead to more calls for regulation not just of Google, but the entire search marketplace.  In other words,  “Googlephobia” could bubble over into something truly ugly.

Consider the comments of Tim Wu and Lawrence Lessig in Jeff Rosen’s huge New York Times Magazine article this weekend, “Google’s Gatekeepers.” Along with Yochai Benkler, Lessig and Wu form the Holy Trinity of the Digital Left; they set the intellectual agenda for the Left on information technology policy issues. Rosen quotes both Wu and Lessig in his piece going negative on Google. Wu tells Rosen that “To love Google, you have to be a little bit of a monarchist, you have to have faith in the way people traditionally felt about the king.” Moreover:

“The idea that the user is sovereign has transformed the meaning of free speech,” Wu said enthusiastically about the Internet age. But Google is not just a neutral platform for sovereign users; it is also a company in the advertising and media business. In the future, Wu said, it might slant its search results to favor its own media applications or to bury its competitors. If Google allowed its search results to be biased for economic reasons, it would transform the way we think about Google as a neutral free-speech tool. The only editor is supposed to be a neutral algorithm. But that would make it all the more insidious if the search algorithm were to become biased.

“During the heyday of Microsoft, people feared that the owners of the operating systems could leverage their monopolies to protect their own products against competitors,” says the Internet scholar Lawrence Lessig of Stanford Law School. “That dynamic is tiny compared to what people fear about Google. They have enormous control over a platform of all the world’s data, and everything they do is designed to improve their control of the underlying data. If your whole game is to increase market share, it’s hard to do good, and to gather data in ways that don’t raise privacy concerns or that might help repressive governments to block controversial content.”

So, here we have Wu raising the specter of search engine bias and Lessig raising the specter of Google-as-panopticon. And this comes on top of groups like EPIC and CDT calling for more regulation of the online advertising marketplace in the name of protecting privacy.  Alarm bells must be going off at the Googleplex. But we all have reason to be concerned because greater regulation of Google would mean greater regulation of the entire code / application layer of the Net.  It’s bad enough that we likely have greater regulation of the infrastructure layer on the way thanks to Net neutrality mandates. We need to work hard to contain the damage of increased calls for government to get its hands all over every other layer of the Net.

  • http://bennett.com/blog Richard Bennett

    Privacy advocates have been warning about Google for years, and it appears that their concerns are finally going mainstream. They're certainly a lot more understandable to the average citizen than the arcane concerns of net neutrality advocates.

    Google is a scary company because their business model takes so much from the KGB. The more Google knows about us, where we are, what we want, what we're going to buy next, the more high-priced advertising they can sell to companies who want our money.

    Even if all the employees of Google were clones of Jesus Christ, the massive personal dossiers they've built on those who use their services – which is just about everybody on the Internet – are a temptation to authoritarian governments around the world.

    I think Google needs to be regulated by the government for the same reasons that nuclear plants are regulated. While they provide an enormous social utility, the means of producing the service poses enormous risks if its not managed properly. And I don't trust a company that seems to believe that a corporate motto is a sufficient safeguard on its deadly technology.

  • http://blurringborders.com Kevin D

    Is that really the take away about regulation from the article? Two things I thought more notable:

    1. Google wants regulation.
    “[Google's deciders] said they would prefer that countries around the world set up accountable bodies that provide direct guidance about what controversial content to restrict. As an example of his preferred alternative, Andrew McLaughlin pointed to Germany, which has established a state agency that gathers the U.R.L.’s of sites hosting Nazi and violent content illegal under German law and gives the list to an industry body, which then passes it on to Google so that it can block the material on its German site. (Whenever Google blocks material there or on its other foreign sites, it indicates in the search results that it has done so.)”

    While these proposed bodies may be nice in a democratic country where they are accountable to the will of the people, Wong, McLaughlin and Walker come off as very pro-free speech in the article, and I'm not so sure these regulatory bodies would be. Say Saudi Arabia was democratic, they would still have plenty of people asking for censorship (http://techdirt.com/articles/20081116/195310284…). Is it too bad to want Google to keep fighting the good fight?

    2. It is happening, regardless of Lessig and Wu's approval.
    “”As a result, Wong and her colleagues said they worried that Google’s ability to make case-by-case decisions about what links and videos are accessible through Google’s sites may be slowly circumvented, as countries are requiring the companies that give us access to the Internet to build top-down censorship into the network pipes.””

    The application/service layer, even if it remains unregulated, may have little ability to overcome deeper regulation/censorship. While I, too, worry about the long term good-nature of a corporation, it may not matter if Wu and Lessig scare DC into regulating because it is already happening (especially abroad).

  • http://www.aheram.com Jayel Aheram

    I have always been iffy about Net Neutrality. I am always skeptical of anything that requires government as the solution. But I have yet to be convinced that corporate regulation of the internet is any better.

  • http://sethf.com/ Seth Finkelstein

    This is sort of funny, being that Wu and Lessig are regularly (and in my view, unfairly) slammed as being in the pockets of Google.

    “they set the intellectual agenda for the Left on information technology policy”

    Not to deny their evident public intellectual influence, I suggest you're confusing correlation with causation. These issues have been around for a while. Just to cite myself, see my book chapter:

    “Google, Links, and Popularity versus Authority”

    quod.lib.umich.edu/cgi/t/text/text-idx?c=nmw;idno=5680986.0001.001;rgn=div2;view=text;cc=nmw;node=5680986.0001.001%3A3.7

  • colonos

    If “they set the intellectual agenda for the Left on information technology policy”, then there is no left.

    Lessig et al. are liberals and right of centre in any sensible political analysis. Last time I checked one of the main points of leftist politics was a critique of the ownership of the means of production in the tangible realm and a clear rejection of the predominance of exclusive private property in that context.

    Lessig, however, has stated repeatedly that he sees no problem with the conventional liberal understanding of exclusive private property as the best way to organise the tangible realm. This position of his has been brought out in debate with the far right people – or property fundamentalists (like Epstein) – who believe that exclusive private property should also rule in the intangible realm.

    Benkler remains “suspicious” of accounts that use the term property, which is not quite the same as accepting exclusive private property in the tangible realm, but it is a clear rejection of property as a protocol for social organisation of the intangible realm.

    They essentially reject “property in general” on the basis of a very “particular form of property”, namely exclusive, private property (in the tangible realm) with a collocation of exclusionary and exchange rights. That is a pretty much the same as saying that I am suspicious of Italy, because I once had a bad experience in Rome airport, while in transfer. You cannot simply reject something in general on the basis of a very particular instance. One piece of software might be bad, like Windows, but could I sensibly reject a GNU/Linux system on that basis (without sounding like I had no clue)?

    Apart from this rather grave intellectual flaw in their arguments, Lessig and Benkler et al. also forego the opportunity to make sense of the “networked information economy” in terms of property in such a way as to expand and enhance the critical tools, techniques and arguments around “property in general” that could be used to – in turn – criticise the exclusive private property relations in the tangible realm.

    While they often suggest that they have no issue with ownership of the means of production in the tangible realm, they nevertheless have to deal with it, because the debates about network neutrality and common carriage are precisely about issues of private property in the tangible realm, which cannot be excluded from or seen as apart from anything in the intangible realm, since nothing immaterial can really be produced without material means. Even a sage programmer in a cave would need to drink, eat (and shit) and have a computer to code on that was hooked up to cables, wires, antennas and switches.

    The tangible/intangible divide does not always constitute a fundamental difference; on the contrary, there are relevant, shared concerns across that “divide”: for instance, the availability of hardware and the distribution of care are crucial, central concerns for any software project, as are the cables, wires, routers, switches, satellites and so on that technostructurally sustain cyberspace. Additionally, there are more conceptual factors (than whether something is material or not) to the organisation of a given good or resource, such as environmental costs, capacity and frequency, and social patterns of (normal) use.

    These latter aspects, to his credit, are similar to those that Benkler has developed, in particular in “Sharing Nicely”, and are essentially justificatory narratives for different forms of property, yet he chooses not to call them so; but they are.

    Property is a very very wide conceptual framework with an enormous amount of different possible configurations. They might have gotten lost in the myth making of capitalism, but that is a reason to rediscover them, not to throw the baby out with the bathwater.
    Continuing to exempt information from this debate is intellectually dubious and politically self-defeating in the long run, if your concerns are with the freedom of creativity and mind. No measure of reorganisation in the intangible realm alone can mend the injustices arising from the distorting exclusive ownership typical of the tangible realm.

    Property relations are social relations. Property, conceptually speaking, are protocols – into which social values are encoded – for the purpose of organising the the care, production, distribution/circulation of goods and resources. Whether the good or resources are tangible or intangible might matter in terms of how you articulate the protocols to organise them with, but it does not constitute an either/or dividing line between property (in the tangible realm) or not property (in the intangible realm).

    Stallman holds the same position as Lessig et al and claims that Free Software is not an issue of property, but of freedom and human rights. However, this is a bizarre proposition, since property is often the means with which to secure freedoms and rights. So to say that it is an issue of freedoms and human rights is kind of OK, but misses the basic point: the GPL is an articulation of property, a very specific one, indeed a genius one that subverts the kind of property relations – or social values that are encoded into copyright. The GPL opens – once again – the province of jurisprudence with regard to property: the whole concept of property in general is up for discussion.

    That's what a leftist would engage with. Lessig and Benkler are liberals, right of centre from a perspective of political philosophy of law or jurisprudence.

    All that said, I am not a leftist in that sense, but simply wanted to clarify that neither are they and to say so would be to pass a death sentence to the idea of leftism.

  • http://sethf.com/ Seth Finkelstein

    Trying to fix link, if anyone is still reading and cares:

    “Google, Links, and Popularity versus Authority”

  • http://blurringborders.com Kevin D

    Because Google reminds you of state police, you want to put the private entity under more control of the state?

  • http://bennett.com/blog Richard Bennett

    Right.

  • AZMos

    Regarding privacy and Google – the problem with people giving over their personal information to Google is that it diminishes everyone's expectations of privacy and eventually limits what “society” deems a reasonable expectation of privacy. If fourth amendment privacy protections are determined, in part, by what society deems a reasonable expectation (as many have understood Katz v. US), these diminished individual expectations could be a cause for alarm. Jim Harper discusses this (and a solution) here: http://techliberation.com/2008/07/25/reforming-

    The problem isn't whether a private company has personal information I chose to give over to them. I become concerned when my protection from the government collecting that information is diminished.

  • http://precursorblog.com Scott Cleland

    This is Scott Cleland, sorry for the delay in adding my two cents.
    I posted my full response at my blog: “Googlephobia? No just holding a bad actor to account”
    http://www.precursorblog.com/content/googlephob
    I agree most all of the time with you Adam, but on this one I strongly disagree as you can see in my post above.

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  • Brett Glass

    Yes, Google wants regulation. In fact, it is the primary funding source for efforts to impose “network neutrality” regulation — a misnomer because this regulation is not neutral at all (it favors Google at the expense of ISPs). Of course, once we have regulation, Google hopes to engage in “regulatory capture,” ensuring that the regulators continue to favor it. And with its googols of dollars, it could well succeed.

  • Brett Glass

    I would feel much more comfortable about the PFF defending Google if it were not participating in the Google Policy Fellowship program — see http://www.google.com/policyfellowship/, Google is offering many groups — including Public Knowledge, one of the big DC crusaders for intensive Internet regulation — free employees. What does it seek in return for these dollars? In the case of Public Knowledge, the group is lobbying for Google in DC while attempting to maintain the guise of being a “public interest” group. Yet, not surprisingly, its agenda is 100% aligned with Google's interests. PFF, please do not participate in this program; if you do, it calls into question any support you give the company. Retain your independence and intellectual honesty and don't accept what amounts to a bribe from Google.

  • http://www.techliberation.com Adam Thierer

    Oh give me a break, Brett. That is pathetic. Do you really think that I or anyone else at PFF is basing our views on Google or any policy issues on who supports us? Why don't you make this argument when it comes to net neutrality or spectrum policy? Is it because you agree what we have to say there?

    I expect this sort of lunacy from others, but I expect better from you.

  • Brett Glass

    Adam, what I am asserting here is that whether or not you or PFF are swayed by Google's money, it's clearly Google's intent to do that. And accepting free employees from Google creates a real conflict of interest for any organization that is involved with policy issues in which Google has an interest. One can no longer tell for sure if the organization is defending Google on principle or because it's being paid by Google. So, what I'm advising you to do is to avoid any appearance of impropriety. Do not accept Google's money, and there will be no question that you haven't been swayed by it. Otherwise, critics will justifiably be able to point out that the conflict of interest exists.

  • Brett Glass

    P.S. — As for “network neutrality” and spectrum policy: PFF took its stands on these issues before Google began this program — and the free employees won't arrive until this coming summer. I think all will agree that Google isn't sending them out of the goodness of its heart. One of Google's goals in offering your organization (and the others on the list) free employees is, clearly, to influence what they do (or do not do) on these issues down the road. Again, I'd urge you to avoid a conflict of interest or an appearance of impropriety. Take a bite of the apple, and critics will be able to impugn your integrity even if you did not allow Google to influence you.

  • http://www.techliberation.com Adam Thierer

    Brett, do you even know what the Google Fellowship program is about? They provide scholarships for law students or other graduate students to spend a summer at one of a dozen or so different think tanks. That's it. A student for the summer. It's not like they are sending their Chief General Counsel over to camp out in our offices for the next 5 years and secretly program our brains.

    We have a wide diversity of supporters at PFF, and they're all listed on our website. Our views are not determined by any of them, however. They all know the over-arching principles that govern PFF's work and the thinking of its analysts. Those principles have not changed over time even though our supporters have changed considerably over time.

    Moreover, I can tell you from my 13 years of work at Heritage Foundation and Cato Institute (who had very limited corporate support) that it really doesn't matter if you get a dime from any specific corporate supporter or not — people will still accuse you of being in their back pocket. I got accused of it just as much when I was with Heritage and Cato as I do now. All I can do is point people to the consistency of my research and the organizations I have worked for because the song remains the same the whole time: We believe in free minds and free markets. Period.

  • Brett Glass

    Yes Adam, I know what Google's program is about — and also what it is REALLY about. And you're a smart guy, so I'm sure know what the game is about as well.

    Google isn't just sending students to these think tanks because it thinks that's a good thing to do. It's hoping to inject people who are loyal to it (after all, it's paying their salaries) into these organizations while at the same time giving the organizations free labor. The employees might not be highly paid lawyers, but will be young, eager, and willing to work hard. After the summer, they may stay on, or come back later and advance within the organization. And both the individuals' debt to Google and the organization's debt to Google will be remembered.

    Corporations would not do this if it did not work for them at least some of the time, so I honestly do hope that you — and your entire organization — can accept what is openly intended as a quid pro quo without being compromised by it.

  • http://techliberation.com/author/berinszoka/ Berin Szoka

    Rather than point out all the areas where we have significant disagreements with Google (such as that little “net neutrality thing,” which will probably blow over anyway), I'd like to know preciselt which of our positions seem so inconsistent with our general free minds, free markets stance that some reasonable person might fairly wonder whether Google had a hand in them. Really, I'd love to know.

  • Brett Glass

    Berin, none of PFF's positions seem that way now. The question is, if PFF accepts what is clearly intended by Google as a bribe, will we see any in a year or two? Or a softening of the group's position in areas where it previously disagreed with Google? I certainly hope not.

    Perhaps I am an idealist, but if I ran an organization such as PFF, I would not accept contributions that were clearly intended to sway me from my founding principles.

    P.S. — As for that “little net neutrality thing:” it's not little. That's why Google is spending so much money on it, both overtly and covertly. It amounts to heavy handed regulation of the Internet, prohibition of innovation, and the destruction of free markets for broadband services via government imposition of a duopoly. Things which, I think you will agree, PFF should continue to firmly oppose.

  • Brett Glass

    Berin, none of PFF's positions seem that way now. The question is, if PFF accepts what is clearly intended by Google as a bribe, will we see any in a year or two? Or a softening of the group's position in areas where it previously disagreed with Google? I certainly hope not.

    Perhaps I am an idealist, but if I ran an organization such as PFF, I would not accept contributions that were clearly intended to sway me from my founding principles.

    P.S. — As for that “little net neutrality thing:” it's not little. That's why Google is spending so much money on it, both overtly and covertly. It amounts to heavy handed regulation of the Internet, prohibition of innovation, and the destruction of free markets for broadband services via government imposition of a duopoly. Things which, I think you will agree, PFF should continue to firmly oppose.

  • Brett Glass

    Berin, none of PFF's positions seem that way now. The question is, if PFF accepts what is clearly intended by Google as a bribe, will we see any in a year or two? Or a softening of the group's position in areas where it previously disagreed with Google? I certainly hope not.

    Perhaps I am an idealist, but if I ran an organization such as PFF, I would not accept contributions that were clearly intended to sway me from my founding principles.

    P.S. — As for that “little net neutrality thing:” it's not little. That's why Google is spending so much money on it, both overtly and covertly. It amounts to heavy handed regulation of the Internet, prohibition of innovation, and the destruction of free markets for broadband services via government imposition of a duopoly. Things which, I think you will agree, PFF should continue to firmly oppose.

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