Apr/May 2011

Search and Destroy

How the age of Google has accelerated the assault on the public sphere

Charles Petersen

It's rare that anything of substance comes out of the Aspen Ideas Festival, that annual orgy of techno-triumphalism and political self-seriousness, the bastard child of Davos and TED. But something odd happened when Eric Schmidt, until recently the CEO of Google, appeared at the high-powered mogul gathering in 2009 to speak about Google and the future of the American economy. After Schmidt addressed the crisis in the American banking system and the need for improved regulation, Brian Lehrer, the host of a talk show on WNYC in New York, walked up to the microphone. "Is there ever a point at which Google becomes so big that it's kind of scary and needs to be regulated as a public utility?" he asked. The audience laughed. "You'll be surprised that my answer is no," Schmidt replied, to more laughter. "There are models and there are countries where in fact the government does try to do that, and I think the American model works better."

Lehrer, to his credit, persisted with this line of questioning—and Siva Vaidhyanathan, to his, makes the discussion that followed one of the central moments in The Googlization of Everything. "I would expect a more sophisticated answer," Lehrer continued. "As we saw with the banks, it's not a question of Soviet-style Communism or free-market capitalism. Banks needed smart regulation that they didn't have. . . . Is it possible that information is in the same boat?" Schmidt, after hamming it up for the business elite with yet another "Well, again. My answer would be no," gave as serious an answer as he could: "Companies are defined by the values that they were founded with. . . . Independent of my leadership and the founders' leadership and so forth, [Google has] formed a certain way. A thing that you should be worried about is that a combination of special interests plus unintended regulation could in fact prevent the kind of consumer benefits that we push so hard to do."

Why so much laughter? Vaidhyanathan, a professor of media studies and law at the University of Virginia, points out the obvious: Google is already regulated. "Google spends millions of dollars every year ensuring it adheres to copyright, patent, antitrust, financial disclosure, and national security regulations." What made Schmidt's comments significant was the suggestion that Google was being regulated too much.

Google, unlike the banking system, has not yet caused a global meltdown, and unlike Microsoft, Google has never blatantly attempted to destroy a competitor. Since Google handles "only" about 70 percent of search traffic in the United States, the company also cannot be labeled a monopoly. But in much of the world, Google's search engine has become as dominant as Microsoft's operating system: Argentina, Australia, Austria, Belgium, Brazil, Chile, Colombia, Denmark, Finland, France, Germany, Hungary, Italy, Latvia, Lithuania, the Netherlands, Poland, Portugal, Romania, Spain, Switzerland, the United Kingdom, and Venezuela all rely on Google for around 90 percent or more of searches, the typical threshold for monopoly regulation. Worldwide, 85 to 91 percent of all searches go through Google, depending on which reporting service does the analytics. Among the virtues of The Googlization of Everything is Vaidhyanathan's decision to go beyond the typical boundaries of books on Google, which tend to focus on the American market and, for a chapter or two, China. Vaidhyanathan's book may not strictly include "everything," but it at least encompasses much of the more wired world.

Vaidhyanathan puts the question of regulation front and center. Google has avoided that question, in part, through the brilliance of its slogan, "Don't be evil." The phrase was first celebrated as an apt summary of the company's difference from Microsoft and later reviled as a cartoonishly arrogant conceit—"If Google's not evil, what is it, a superhero?" But the real genius of "Don't be evil" comes from its helplessly seductive appeal to journalists, who often devote entire articles, interviews, and panel discussions to whether Google belongs in heaven or hell, only to conclude, as if it were some kind of discovery, that the company still exists here on earth, in shades of gray. Unlike recent studies such as Planet Google, What Would Google Do?, and Googled, Vaidhyanathan's book starts from the premise that Google, despite its success, has always been a company much like any other.

Since Google, at least by one measure, is the fastest-growing corporation in history, Vaidhyanathan has his task cut out for him. "Google," he writes, "has deftly capitalized on a thirty-year tradition of 'public failure'"—i.e., the dismantling of services best handled by the state so that they might be taken over and exploited by big business. He places Google's success in the context of the neoliberal reforms of the 1980s (think Thatcher and Reagan) and the decline of civil society throughout the twentieth century (think fraternal societies like the Masons and the Elks); the Marxist geographer David Harvey and the Frankfurt School political philosopher Jürgen Habermas make appearances in the footnotes. Where companies like Enron profited from the deregulation of formerly public utilities, Google has benefited from the hands-off attitude of many governments toward the new industry of the Internet. Vaidhyanathan's favorite example is the Google Books project: Rather than insist that the world's knowledge might be too important to be left to a single company and agreeing to fund an international consortium of libraries and universities—what Vaidhyanathan calls a Human Knowledge Project, citing the precedent of the publicly funded Human Genome Project—we have instead left our cultural patrimony to be digitized and effectively privatized by a corporation.

In this view of things, the qualities that seem to distinguish Google from its predigital forerunners in the corporate world—the provision of excellent search results "for the public good," the distribution of grants as a sign of "corporate responsibility"—become merely yet more episodes in the corporate takeover of the public sphere. Walmart responded better than FEMA to Hurricane Katrina not because Walmart had a better distribution system than any government agency, but because a Bush crony was deliberately put in charge of FEMA; Walmart reformulates its food products with organic ingredients not because organic produce is better for the environment, but because a reputation for "responsibility," however minimal, will be better for the bottom line. Google, for Vaidhyanathan, is no different.

Google either already is or will become monopolistic, he claims: "Real competition in many of Google's successful areas of business such as search and advertising is almost impossible to imagine." He variously attributes the inevitability of Google's monopoly to its lead in computing power and to the importance of "network effects" (i.e., the way that larger networks tend to overpower smaller networks because each additional member makes the larger network exponentially more powerful). Despite the importance of this argument to his thesis, Vaidhyanathan never presents it systematically. Readers unfamiliar with the concept will be baffled, and the more tech savvy will wonder why Vaidhyanathan ignores the rise of large distributed computer systems like those provided by Amazon, which allow small companies to rapidly expand to global scale without bothering to build their own server farms. These services do not obviate the head start enjoyed by Google, and I am inclined to agree that Google will likely monopolize significant portions of the Web. But Vaidhyanathan's book suffers unnecessarily from the omission of an extended discussion of why competition in search and advertising may become "impossible to imagine."

Vaidhyanathan is more persuasive in his critique of Google Books, the clearest example of Google stepping into the public sphere. Google Books, however, has always been peripheral to Google's core businesses, search and advertising. The Googlization of Everything would be much more persuasive if Vaidhyanathan had argued that a search engine itself constitutes an encroachment on the public sphere. Google famously says that its "mission is to organize the world's information and make it universally accessible and useful." If Vaidhyanathan considers the digitization of books an invasion of the public sphere, why not suggest that the organization and dissemination of the world's information should also be taken up by the great libraries and universities of the world, rather than a single private company?

Vaidhyanathan instead focuses on the lack of regulation of search engines. Courts in the United States, for instance, have held that Google may rank sites according to whatever criteria it likes—however capricious or misleading that may be—even though a sudden change in rankings can effectively destroy sites that rely on search traffic for business. But if a monopoly of search is almost inevitable, as Vaidhyanathan argues, and search in particular represents an important public good, the question becomes not just whether search engines should be regulated but whether part of the industry should "go public" in a sense largely unknown to Silicon Valley—that is, become socialized.

Today, only behemoths like Microsoft can hope to challenge Google in search. Jimmy Wales of Wikipedia has proposed the creation of an "Open Index Alliance," which would centralize the task of trolling through the entire Web and indexing its pages so they might be searched. Such a project might well level the playing field and give Google a wider range of competition. Given Vaidhyanathan's emphasis on "public failure" and regulation, I found it odd that he never discusses the proposal for a centralized search index and largely declines to discuss any other specific regulatory approaches to the Internet.

It's worth returning to Lehrer's provocative comparison of the regulation of the banking system to the regulation of Google. If we leave the organization of the world's information to only one corporation, we may yet face a different kind of crisis, a global information meltdown, after we begin to rely on that company for access to almost all knowledge. Vaidhyanathan should be thanked for reminding us that we can't let Google get too big to fail. The question remains just how, if Google is not a foreordained monopoly, we should go about stopping it from becoming one.

Charles Petersen is an associate editor of n+1 and a contributor to the New York Review of Books.