The real Google scandal
On Tuesday afternoon, NBC News reported that Google had "banned" two "far-right" online publications, Zero Hedge and The Federalist, from its advertising platform because both had published articles in violation of its terms of service. According to report, these actions had been taken by Google at the behest of NBC's own so-called "Verification Unit," after reporters showed them a listicle from what is allegedly a British think tank.
The response to this news in right-wing circles was predictable. Which is why no one was remotely surprised when, within the space of a few hours, Google announced that it had all been an enormous misunderstanding, that The Federalist would be given three days to clean up its act, that the recent sanctions, only threatened rather than imposed, had nothing to do with the content of any actual article that had appeared on the site but rather with the fact that it maintained an open comments platform. Meanwhile, NBC also claimed that, despite its own reporters’ gleeful cheerleading on behalf of their “collaboration” with foreign research outfits, there had been no such collaboration at all, that Google had misrepresented its own actions to them, that contrary to previous reports (its own), Google would not ban a website for something it had been accused of doing in material brought to Google’s attention by, well, NBC. Got it?
How refreshing it is to have a story about the cynicism and incompetence of government and media alike that has nothing to do with either the pandemic or impeachment. Thousands of words will soon be written about the devolution of journalism at legacy media outlets into mindless activism — what is this "Verification Unit" anyway, and why does it appear to be subject to minimal oversight from the rest of NBC News? — and the no-doubt imminent online silencing of anyone slightly to the right of Joy Ann Reid. By late Tuesday evening, Ted Cruz had already published a letter to the chairman of Google's parent corporation accusing the company of "censorship" and actions "antithetical to American values."
Unfortunately the real significance of this affair is very likely to be lost. A far more serious problem than the childishness of 20-something journalists or "media bias" in general is the brute fact of Google's power, not its potential or even apparent deployment against a particular website.
No institution in the history of the world — not the Church at the height of the Middle Ages, not the great totalitarian regimes of the 20th century, certainly not our own federal government — has ever had so much concentrated authority over the exchange of information. This unprecedented empire was not, comparatively speaking, the result of many long decades of patient accumulation. (I and millions of others can distinctly remember when Google was a humble online search platform, comparable to Lycos or Ask Jeeves of blessed memory.) It acquired its power, historically speaking, overnight. And it did so not because anyone in particular — perhaps not even the principals at Google themselves — wished for this to be the case but simply because the relevant authorities in this country abnegated their responsibility in the name of abstract principles about freedom of speech and corporate autonomy (and a relaxed attitude toward the enforcement of existing antitrust law).
The time for that attitude has passed. Google is not a "monopoly" any more than al Qaeda is an "activist group." It is not even a corporation, at least not in the sense that the word has acquired in the last century. It does not exist simply in order to provide financial benefit to its shareholders (though it certainly does). To find any non-state entity even remotely comparable to Google's scope, ambition, and unrivaled mastery over its dominion, which is to say, over virtually the entire world with the exception of China, one would have to look back to the Honourable East India Company and the other joint-stock behemoths that once privatized imperialism.
To say that Google is the world's largest and most powerful de facto publisher — the largest ever, in fact — would be true. It would also be a massive understatement. Google is also the world's largest courier service, its largest shopping center (even Amazon is often accessed via Google's browser), its largest library, its largest cinema, and its largest water cooler. Even these facile analogies fail to do justice to the role that a company roughly as old as the first Star Wars prequel plays in all of our lives. The fact that the increasingly shaky business of online advertising, upon which many publications depend for revenue, technically falls under its control is of comparatively little importance. All of this could have been prevented.
But the question is what can be done now. It seems obvious that no private actor accountable primarily to its shareholders can be trusted with anything even approaching Google's power. It cannot in any meaningful sense be regulated. It can either be broken up, turning its advertising business, its search engine, its Chrome browser, its YouTube video platform, and its Gmail service into distinct entities, or else nationalized (imagine the Google homepage but it's the Library of Congress website). Doing either will require us to abandon virtually everything we have told ourselves about how the state should treat tech companies and, indeed, large companies in general. It would mean a return to the post-war consensus on the mixed economy, under which monopolies, if they involve public goods and are allowed to exist at all, must be de facto organs of the state. More important still, it will mean looking past the short-term interests of various factions in American public life — can one seriously imagine Cruz's letter being written on behalf of Jezebel or Deadspin? — toward real threats to the common good.
I am not optimistic.
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