As in Alphabet, Inc., the Nasdaq-100 corporate parent of Google. I bought my first shares a month after the Hadron Collider opened (just to help you place the date), never thought when CERN started zinging particles in there that I’d one day regret my status as a fractional Google corporate owner.
But, I did. My portfolio is de-GOOGL’d. I post to unburden myself.
I’ll begin by sounding like a company press agent.
Many of Google’s most familiar tools — Gmail, Chrome, Google Search, Google Maps — are either ranked among the best in their product categories or acknowledged as near-undisputed leaders. Others — Android, Google Earth, Google Street View — are practically unique.
And, albeit with serious privacy concerns, we can use them all for free. A Beverly Hills mega-mogul’s explorations in Google Earth may differ little from those of an adolescent web surfer in Guatemala City.
I’m old enough to remember feeding 360K floppies into the original IBM PC. I would have bet my wallet, with odds, against anyone who had tried to convince me then that I’d one day use these state-of-the-art twenty-first century services without paying.
YOURS TRULY, CON
Consider the sins that didn’t induce your ethically-imperfect blogger to unload shares, as the tenor of Alphabet-related news stories deteriorated in the past decade. I didn’t sell:
(♦) in 2017, when Google admitted tracking users’ location in phones without SIM cards;
(♦) in 2018, when engineer Jack Poulson resigned to protest company plans for a censored China search engine;
(♦) and not even in 2020, when the National Labor Relations Board alleged retaliation against activist employees.
I thought about selling, but didn’t. Not the same. I let myself assume that Alphabet’s backfield of ethical employees would rein in excesses.
SO WHY SELL NOW?
Partly because of the Twitter Files, and my willingness to assume that sins committed by one company in this sector would be committed by others. And partly because of how I’ve seen friends, acquaintances and strangers use their smartphones at the many public events I attend in Madrid. I’ve seen the Google search bar on too many home screens.
We wary internautas too easily forget how smartphones and computers are used by most consumers. More than a quarter in a 2017 survey used their móvil without a screen lock; forty percent updated apps and OS only when convenient. I think of most users I meet as nervous innocents: apprehensive about their relationship with the online world — (‘We don’t have any privacy anymore.’ ‘They know everything about us.’) — but with no serious intention of learning more, or, perhaps likelier, with no idea of how they could learn.
I doubt that most do any significant mechanicking to stock configuration settings. If the móvil is an Android, like almost three-quarters of handsets in use, it already came with Google Play and a tie-in to Alphabet’s de facto international surveillance system. As well as that Google search bar. I suspect that many use only that search bar; they don’t know what an URL is.
The predictable result: more than ninety percent of global internet searches are controlled not by a vetted international agency required to publicly address criticism, but by Google, a single private sector company in the home-of-the-CIA United States. I struggle to even visualize such gate keeping power. The world’s major news outlets look practically trivial in comparison.
A private sector company that meets the highest ethical standard might be excused for wielding such influence, at least temporarily. But Alphabet doesn’t meet that standard, and hasn’t for years. Yelp — admittedly, an adversary one may struggle to admire — has long complained of Google search suppression. They have company: here, here, here and, in the ‘before’ and ‘after’ of the 2020 election, many voices from America’s political right.
I want search engines to do some gate keeping. I’m grateful that they protect us from cybercrime sites (or try to), want recipes for home brewed poisons and explosives to be more than a few clicks away. Creators have a right to protect intellectual property that they don’t want to give away; I understand the burying of sites dedicated to copyright theft.
That’s not the kind of gate keeping that gives me the willies.
A data scientist assures me that covert manipulation of search results would be child’s play. The inadequately supervised, private sector company that controls more than ninety percent of the world’s online searches has the power — latent power, at least, used or not — to be the winner that forever writes and rewrites the online history book, to manage in a coding tweak what would have occupied a whole team of Winstons in 1984. Candidates, causes, scandals, atrocities and whistle blowers could be made to virtually disappear, particularly if not already widely-known … or, as seriously, could be quietly undermined by boosting visibility for ‘hit pieces’ that otherwise would have been buried on search result page twenty.
Far too much concentrated power on far too important an issue, despite my high opinion of many Google products. I should have sold earlier.
What state-of-affairs would strike me as just? Off the top of my head:
(♦) A search engine could include a prominent home page link to a clear, comprehensive explanation of what gets excluded, and why. A lone blog post isn’t adequate.
(♦) A webmaster who thinks she’s being sent to page twenty ought to be able to complain, and get a timely answer. The search engine could charge for giving the answer, in some situations; in others, no. A sufficiently disgruntled webmaster ought to have legal recourse to appeal outside of the company.
(♦) A home base in a country that scores higher on measures of democratic government and press freedom than the United States. Alphabet thought about moving servers overseas in the wake of the Snowden revelations, but didn’t.