Apparently, according to my daughter, Google knows everything. When discussing her latest research project, this gem of wisdom was offered to me as a way to solve all of our research problems. Just type it into Google and they’ll give you the answer. To say I was a little surprised at her response would be an understatement, especially as there was no mention of books of libraries (a sure sign that I am on a terminal decline into a curmudgeonly retirement). However it led me along an interesting train of thought, namely the question of how much we rely on internet searches to tell us the truth, more specifically, how we rely on just one particular company, Google.
Internet searching has become commonplace, to the point when ‘to google’ something has now become part of our everyday language. I refuse to use it as it indicates a complete domination of a field which is in many ways, what Google have achieved. I’ve been online since the mid-90s, when browsing the internet required listening to the dialling tone of your 56k modem and back then, searching the internet was not as easy as it appears now. One’s choice in internet search engine was far more wide ranging and those of you with long memories will remember names such as Alta Vista, Lycos and Ask Jeeves, all search engines promising to bring you exactly what you requested from your imaginary internet butler.
Google arrived soon after and wasted no time in trashing the opposition by use of their search algorithm which, despite whatever accusations you may wish to level at them, remains a powerful and unmatched search tool. Even smaller, less well known search engines these days struggle to match its power and effectiveness at returning relevant results. However since then, Google has gone on to establish a powerbase of staggering proportions to such a degree that most people would be hard pressed to name another search engine. You might get the occasional person remembering Bing but that’s because anything made by Microsoft tends to default to it. Surely though, this is dangerous? Out of the glut of search engine providers, a champion was chosen while the others faded into obscurity, meaning that we effectively are trusting only one company to be the arbiter of what we see and what we don’t see. Just as people who only consume one form of media limit their knowledge, are we not narrowing our focus just as dangerously by only relying on one search provider?
Two weeks ago people started noticing a strange trend in Google’s instant search results. On typing various political parties into the engine, results would be generated in the instant search box, normally of a negative variety. But on typing in “Tories are…” or “Conservatives are…” nothing. Not a single suggestion. When challenged, Google’s bland response was that sometimes results are not suggested due to too many abusive or antisocial responses being raised. Although I take some pleasure in thinking that the search results for our current ruling party were too abusive for even Google to stomach, it all seemed a bit creepy given that they’d just been let off of ten years worth of tax avoidance by creepy swivel-eyed Lizard King, George Osbourne with a slap on the wrist and a paltry fine. CONSPIRACY! cried the internet and then promptly forgot about it and went back to Google for their search results.
Yet what is important to remember is that in their response, Google just flat out admitted that they censor the results that we are provided. We already know that they weight search results in favour of paid advertising but this seems inherently more creepy. Anyone who studies the media knows that every news source is biased, no matter how balanced they may try to appear to be. The very act of selecting what news they report is an act of censorship, as is our own choice of what newspapers and television programs we watch. The only counter for this is to try and get a range of views and I will admit to occasionally reading a column in The Scum while I’m lining my rats’ cage with it. The revulsion is normally enough to last me a week.
The problem is, with so many forces now seeking to censor our uptake of information, we should be wary of putting all of our eggs in one basket. The government is already terrified of the internet and recent efforts to censor it from the optional adult filters that all ISPs now have to provide to the current Information Security Bill (a document that would not have been out of place in 1938 Germany) show that there are forces at work to try and restrict the media we consume. As citizens, not consumers, we need to push back and make sure that we are able to get a variety of different views, not just the ones that the powers that be deem to be socially acceptable. Google, having won the internet war and been crowned search engine king, initially tried to sound neutral in its early years but now, having grown into such a behemoth, is used to throwing its weight into just about any technology venture. They’re courted by governments the world over and as time has gone on, have started to get their tentacles into every aspect of modern life. One positive is that they remain vehemently opposed to the latest Snoopers Charter along with a number of other technology giants.
But Google’s admission that it removes certain search items should serve as a huge warning light to anyone who uses their services: that the company has made a political decision to block certain searches. We’ve already seen how such a simple move can have unforeseen consequences such as how the ISP adult filter managed to remove a number of helplines for LBGT websites from searches. Likewise both Kindle and Tumblr have chosen to remove adult items from searches of their websites, devastating the incomes of some writers and bloggers. Although this might not seem significant when it comes to individual websites, it bodes poorly for a search engine for which most of the western world relies upon to provide them with information.
Do Google know everything? Of course not but their power in getting you to the right information is significant and not to be abused. If Google are choosing to alter their search results then we need to be equally savvy in our search for information, to not rely on them as our arbiter. If you’re not sure if you’re getting everything you want from Google searches, there are plenty of new, smaller search engines out there such as DuckDuckGo which are becoming increasingly popular, not just for their independence but because they respect your right to privacy as well. Stay safe out there people.