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.