A psychologist who has spent years researching Google’s massive influence has suggested a way for the tech giant to avoid potentially crippling government intervention. The solution, a significant sacrifice for Google, would be to open its entire search index to the public.
Google, which controls about 92 percent of the internet search market, has been fined more than $8 billion by the European Union since 2017, and now, U.S. authorities are considering the idea that the company has an antitrust issue.
Robert Epstein argues that by opening its index, Google can avoid more drastic regulatory measures, such as being carved up into many smaller companies, which may undermine its usefulness.
The search index is a database of all web pages known to Google, including detailed data about each page that allows Google to determine what’s on the page and how it should be categorized.
Users currently can only peek into the index one search at a time. Epstein proposes for Google to allow unlimited access to the entire database.
“If entities worldwide were given unlimited access to Google’s index, … within a year or two, thousands of new search platforms might emerge, each with different strengths and weaknesses,” he wrote in a July 15 Bloomberg op-ed.
That, according to Epstein, would solve some of the most pressing problems of Google’s monopoly.
‘Manipulate the Thinking’
Epstein established a network of volunteers that share with him data about their Google searches. Based on the results, he determined that the company has an “unprecedented ability to manipulate the thinking of 2.5 billion people, soon to be 4-plus billion.”
“The methods that they’re using are invisible. They’re subliminal. They’re more powerful than most any effects I’ve ever seen in behavioral sciences and I’ve been in behavioral sciences for almost 40 years,” he testified to a Senate Judiciary subcommittee on July 16.
The core issue: “People blindly trust high-ranking search results over lower ones.”
Google’s influence is so vast, it can shift undecided voters—four out of five of them in some demographics, he said.
“In 2016, Google’s search algorithm likely impacted undecided voters in a way that shifted at least 2.6 million votes to Hillary Clinton, whom I supported,” he testified. “I know this, because I preserved more than 13,000 election-related searches prior to Election Day and Google’s search results were significantly biased in favor of Secretary Clinton.”
For the 2018 election, Epstein further expanded his monitoring system, concluding that in the weeks leading up to Election Day, “bias in Google search results may have shifted upwards of 78.2 million votes, spread across many races, to the candidates of one political party.”
Moreover, the “Go Vote” reminder that Google displayed on its home page in 2018 “gave one political party at least 800,000 more votes than it gave the other party,” he said.
“That reminder was not a public service; it was a vote manipulation.”
He warned that tech companies such as Google and Facebook were “overconfident” in 2016, but “in 2020, you can bet that all of these companies are going to go all out.”
“If these companies all support the same candidate, they will have the power to shift 15 million votes to that candidate,” he said.
Epstein is now fundraising to set up an even more extensive monitoring system for 2020, but suggests that making Google open up its index could preempt many of the problems.
“At the moment, it’s entirely up to Google to determine which bubble you’re in, which search suggestions you receive, and which search results appear at the top of the list; that’s the stuff of worldwide mind control,” he wrote in the op-ed. “But with thousands of search platforms vying for your attention, the power is back in your hands.”
He drew a parallel to the 1956 consent decree that made AT&T share its patents.
“There’s precedent both in law and Google’s business practices to justify taking this step,” he said.
He concluded the testimony warning that “democracy, as originally conceived, cannot survive big tech as currently empowered.”
Google representatives have previously dismissed Epstein’s research methodology as “flawed,” but didn’t say how.
Google didn’t respond to a request for comment regarding Epstein’s proposal as put forward in the op-ed.
Google has repeatedly claimed political neutrality contrary to whistle blowers within the organization who have provided evidence that proves bias and manipulation.
“We operate a number of platforms and they are constructed and operated to be politically neutral or apolitical,” said Karan Bhatia, Google’s vice president for Government Affairs and Public Policy, during the July 16 hearing.
That position, however, has been undermined by a growing pile of evidence to the contrary.
Project Veritas, a right-leaning investigative journalism nonprofit, published on June 24 a video showing Google employees and internal documents backing the allegation that Google infuses its political worldview into its products without disclosing that to its users.
The exposé corroborated from multiple sources that Google uses a doctrine of “fairness” to tweak its products in order to surreptitiously push its users toward its preferred political worldview.
On June 25, Project Veritas published an internal email that shows a Google employee calling conservative voices such as Ben Shapiro and PragerU, led by Dennis Prager, as “Nazis using dog whistles.” It also labeled Canadian psychologist Jordan Peterson as such. All three are outspoken critics of Nazism.
“Two of three of these people are Jewish, very religious Jews, and yet, you think they’re Nazis,” said Rep. Dan Crenshaw (R-Texas) while questioning Derek Slater, Google’s global director of information policy, during a June 26 hearing. “It begs the question: What kind of education do people at Google have so they think that religious Jews are Nazis?”
More overtly, Google and other major tech platforms, including Facebook and Twitter, have publicly endorsed a model of content policing that reflects certain political leanings.
All of them, for instance, prohibit “hate speech,” a concept much more broadly adopted by the political left, a 2017 Cato survey (pdf) showed.
Moreover, the concept is so subjective it’s impossible to enforce fairly and impartially, said Nadine Strossen, a law professor and former president of the American Civil Liberties Union.
“Even if we have content moderation that is enforced with the noblest principles and people are striving to be fair and impartial, it is impossible,” she said, testifying at the June 26 House hearing. “These so-called standards are irreducibly subjective. What is one person’s hate speech … is somebody else’s cherished loving speech.”