Google (Rose-Colored) Glass: Search Engines and Censorship

“Search can be an effective tool of thought control,” confidently proclaim Abelson, Ledeen, and Lewis as they discuss Google’s presence on the Chinese Web in their book Blown to Bits: Your Life, Liberty, and Happiness After the Digital Explosion (155).  Although short, this statement’s bold language forced me to pause, reading it again and again as their message sunk in, replacing my complex and implausible, 1984 inspired,  imaginings of societal brainwashing with an unassuming list run by a company upon which I depend daily.  Of course, this wasn’t the first time that I had heard about China’s internet restrictions; however, armed with a knowledge of search engines’ processes–of limited indexes, unethical advertising, and the invisibility of low-ranked results–which I had lacked prior to settling down with this chapter, I found myself feeling not just sympathetic for the unfortunate denizens of a communist nation but deeply unsettled.  Suddenly, I recalled the times when, sitting around with my family or friends, we had employed Google as the mediator of our (mostly trivial) debates, placing in this robotic service’s ability to retrieve the truth our unfailing faith.  But can a resource which privileges the powerful, enacting the 80/20 rule of influence, truly deliver “the truth,” or is everything which it shoots back at us filtered, not through a communist but rather a mega-capitalist lens of “big business”?

As an experiment, I picked a few search terms to try, words which for me possess a primary meaning unrelated to the corporate world.  I don’t know why, but the first which popped into my head was “kangaroo,” a word which for me denotes a hopping marsupial from Down Under.  Surprisingly, Google had other ideas–the top result was a map pointing me towards a wedding shop and the nearest Kangaroo gas station.  Below, InFocus wanted to sell me a computer–“the world’s smallest, powerful, portable PC–and another site advertised a docking system.  By the time that I hit Wikipedia and caught my first glimpse of the animal which I had in mind, I had already been offered four different products.  Now, I understand that I could’ve made my query more specific, but should it alarm us that the world of selling has usurped the animal kingdom in Google’s hierarchy of relevance?

Whether it should or shouldn’t, it does trouble me because it hints at the elephant in the room: Google itself is a business giant and part of the same commercial ecosystem as gas stations or shops.  It’s a company which provides a service and makes a massive profit.  It has shown its cards in accepting to give in to the desires of a communist regime rather than lose money.  Thus, is it really so far-fetched to wonder whether its loyalties lie with the consumer or those who stuff its digital pockets with green?  Abelson, Ledeen, and Lewis make it clear that until very recently, the Web was a wild-west without oversight, a fact which created the prime setting for unethical marketing strategies.  Yet, they don’t seem so confident that this has changed, citing minimal oversight even today alongside hesitancy regarding the content of Google’s secret algorithm.

Finally, armed with doubt about search engines’ abilities to locate the truth, what can consumers do?  To where else do we turn for answers?  We could dust off our encyclopedias, but then again, they, like Google’s algorithm, privilege the voices of the powerful.  Perhaps we’ve been controlled by the majority forever.  And perhaps, although a bleak view, there’s no way out.

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