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Regulating Google search is a dumb idea that could actually happen

Trump’s misplaced anger over the lack of right-wing news in search results could act as a catalyst for a renewed antitrust investigation of Google.

Regulating Google search is a dumb idea that could actually happen
[Photo: Medi2go/Pixabay]

Much of Donald Trump’s power comes from setting up bogeymen for his base, and then railing against them. This week Trump’s bogeyman is the tech industry—a perfect bogeyman, in a way, thanks to the perception of Silicon Valley as a land of coastal, liberal, wealthy, elites.

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Trump tweeted Wednesday that Google was messing with its search results to surface mainly negative stories about him in response to search queries, courtesy of the biased liberal media, of course. After the tweet, the top White House economic advisor, Larry Kudlow, said the White House would be “taking a look” at whether Google should be regulated by the government.

A new conspiracy

Trump’s claim of bias fuels a fire that was already burning. Many on the right believe that right-wing outlets like Alex Jones’s Infowars are being unfairly silenced by tech platforms. This week a survey of self-described conservatives by the conservative watchdog group Media Research Center showed that 65% believe social media companies like Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube are “purposely censoring conservatives and conservative ideas from their platforms.”

The conspiracy theory about Google’s search algorithms falls in line with others propagated by Trump (Obama’s birth certificate, the deep state, etc.) in that they are paranoid and largely fact-free, yet very hard to completely refute. Even when they are squarely refuted–as when Obama produced his birth certificate–they often live on.

For the record, Google stated: “Search is not used to set a political agenda and we don’t bias our results toward any political ideology.”

But since Google will never, ever, make public its search algorithm–nothing is more proprietary than that–speculation that it’s biased against conservatives will live on and on. It fits neatly into the “enemy of the people” narrative about the media that’s become a favorite among the MAGA crowd, along with “lock her up!” and “build the wall!”.

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Be careful what you wish for

Trump probably has no idea what he’s asking for when he talks about imposing regulations on the way tech platforms present news content. It would be a very sticky business.

“What this amounts to is the digital-age equivalent of telling a street merchant what magazines he has to put on the front row of his newsstand,” says Dan Hays, who leads PwC’s global tech, media, and telecom industry practice in Washington, D.C. “There hasn’t been any government agency in the U.S. that has had the authority to regulate the placement of media stories.”

Hays says such regulation is “incredibly dangerous” because it immediately puts the regulator on a slippery slope. “If you’re going to regulate the presentation of online content, wouldn’t that naturally mean also thinking about regulating TV content or radio content or newspaper content?” he says.

It’s more likely that Trump is simply throwing around a wild threat to apply a policy solution to a perceived political problem–to use a regulatory arm of the government to strike a political opponent.

And as the New York Times’s Kara Swisher pointed out in an op-ed Wednesday, in clamping down on Big Tech, Trump would be biting the hands that fed him. Twitter and Facebook are the digital petri dishes where the Trump virus flourished (with some help from growth hormone spritzed on by the Russians). They’re the places where the latest bogeyman is propped up and swung at. And they fired up the people who would vote Trump on November 8, 2016.

But that was then. Trump remembers slights forever but forgets favors quickly. He has about as much gratitude for Twitter and Facebook as he had for James Comey, who by reopening the FBI investigation a week before the 2016 election, practically handed him the win. And then there’s his massive ego: Trump probably believes he’s been the secret to Twitter’s success, not the other way around.

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What set Trump off

Trump’s Google tantrum was inspired by a Monday night segment of Lou Dobbs Tonight on Fox Business featuring a report by a little-known right-wing news site called PJ Media, which claimed a Google search on “Trump News” surfaced almost no results from conservative news outlets. But the writer of the report, supervising editor Paula Bolyard, conducted the search on only two desktop computers (no mobile), both using the Chrome browser, BuzzFeed News reported.

Bolyard probably had no idea her modest experiment would be featured on Dobbs’s show, much less taken up by the president. She quickly pointed out on Twitter that her browser tests were not scientific. In another tweet she said she didn’t believe the government should get involved in regulating search algorithms anyway.

At any rate, the White House has zero evidence that Google is down-ranking stories from conservative news outlets, and it has no real way of collecting that evidence, because Google will never reveal its search algorithms. As one tech policy source told me, Google would go out of business before it did that.

The more tech-savvy among the Trump White House know this. That’s why people like Larry Kudlow are saying little about it. Reporters asked Kudlow over and over what he meant by “we’re looking into it,” and he just kept repeating robotically “we’re looking into it, we’re looking into it.”

Enter Antitrust

PwC’s Hays told me Thursday morning that an antitrust case may be the one viable way that the White House or Congress could act against Google and other huge platforms like Facebook. And sure enough, by Thursday afternoon, Trump’s statements on the matter had begun to include the language of antitrust.

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“I won’t comment on the breaking up, of whether it’s that [Google] or Amazon or Facebook,” Trump told Bloomberg News. “As you know, many people think it is a very antitrust situation, the three of them. But I just, I won’t comment on that.”

Interestingly, within hours of Trump’s Bloomberg interview, one of the president’s main GOP loyalists (and apologists) in the Senate, Orrin Hatch of Utah, sent a letter to FTC Chairman Joseph Simons asking that the agency look into Google’s search and digital advertising businesses.

Google and antitrust are not strangers. The company’s sheer reach and search market domination make it a target. That’s one of the main reasons Google now has a small army of lobbyists in D.C. The FTC under Obama investigated Google in 2013 but brought no complaint, and the European Union hit Google with a record $2.7 billion fine in 2017. But in both those cases Google was suspected of manipulating its search results to promote its own services over those of rivals, not to promote liberal political views, which is a very different thing.

The government may do Google harm by exacting large fines for antitrust violations, but that scenario does not seem a direct and proportionate remedy to the perceived problem Trump complained of. So the real motivation for the penalty would always be in question. Was it just, or merely political retribution?

But will Congress actually act?

In order for the FTC or the DOJ to act, they would have to have clear evidence that a law has been broken. Considering the way U.S. law treats search services like Google’s, that’s a tall order.

“The Telecommunications Act of 1996, as I recall, kept edge services (although they weren’t known by that at the time) from being regulated by the FCC,” said ex-FCC chairman Tom Wheeler in an email to Fast Company Thursday. “That leaves the FTC, and they have no broad regulatory power.”

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If the political momentum existed, Congress would have far more latitude than the FTC to regulate Google. “For Congress to take action on this really wouldn’t require any investigation or even any allegation of wrongdoing,” PwC’s Hays says. “Somebody would just say we need a new action, a new law, or even a new agency . . . it’s not outside the realm of possibility.”

Despite the fact that members of Congress have produced more bills proposing various ways of checking the power of the tech platforms through regulation, Congress is not likely to take on such a contentious issue with the midterm elections approaching. Orrin Hatch notwithstanding, there is no groundswell of support in Congress behind placing new restrictions on Google and its search algorithms.

Still, the Google search flap is likely to dominate during next week’s Senate intelligence committee hearings, which were supposed to address the response of big social media companies to attempts by foreign actors to influence U.S. elections. Twitter’s CEO, Jack Dorsey, will be there, as will Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg.

As for the CEO of Google’s parent Alphabet, he was invited, but has not accepted the invitation.

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