Commentary

Google CEO Fails To Ease Worries About Bias, Censorship

Google CEO Sundar Pichai provided an unconvincing explanation of how the near-monopolist in internet search supports a free market and democratic principles of press freedom. Both are critical for a healthy publishing market, and Google’s outsized power to control what people see threatens the industry.

Yesterday, Pichai appeared before the House Judiciary Committee to answer questions about his company’s alleged political biases, consumer privacy protections and plans to create a censored search engine for China.

The hearing didn’t provide much insight into how the company’s technology works, with Pichai offering the flimsy assurances the company doesn’t bias results. He even pointed to negative stories about the company that appear in its search results as proof of impartiality. (I’ll doublecheck if this column is shadow-banned today.)

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Google was always protective of its proprietary indexing technology, both for competitive reasons and to prevent the gaming of search results. That lack of transparency gave birth to the search engine optimization (SEO) industry. SEO experts can make a decent living acting as modern-day oracles with insights into how to outsmart Google’s algorithms.

Based on what I’ve learned over the years, working for publishers that try to boost their search-result rankings on Google, it is possible for readers to end up in a “filter bubble.” That is, their past browsing history tracked by Google can inform their current search results.

Unfortunately, the effort to improve the user experience also can serve to reinforce personal prejudices and foregone conclusions. It’s the modern-day equivalent of Plato’s cave allegory. More practically, it also can mean that smaller publishers never get discovered on the internet without having to buy search terms or other kinds of ads from Google.

Pichai said Google’s search results are ranked by 200 criteria, including freshness, relevance and popularity, along with a team of external raters using “objective guidelines.” Unfortunately, publishers aren’t given any insight into the identity of those readers and how their personal biases affect search results.

The publishing industry and the broader public would be better served by more competition in the search engine marketplace. A stronger rival to Google would give consumers more choices and would compel more innovation.

Pichai tried to play down Google’s dominance by saying users increasingly turn to Amazon and other competitors for more of their searches. That may be fine for product searches, but nobody goes to Amazon to read the latest headlines.

The hearing echoed a Capitol Hill grilling of Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg last spring amid the Cambridge Analytica scandal. Google and Facebook dominate the digital advertising market with formidable audience-targeting technology that traditional media companies and a newer generation of digital publishers don’t have.

Pichai appeared on Capitol Hill the same day that Time, a relic of the bygone print era, honored killed and imprisoned journalists with its “Person of the Year” designation. Time’s editors emphasized the importance of the press as “guardians” in the “war on truth.”

Much of Time’s commentary is aimed at authoritarian governments that suppress free speech. But its editors also point out how Google and Facebook are handmaidens to disinformation, fake news and propaganda.

Publishers are gutting their editorial teams after losing ad revenue to the tech titans. The watchdog press is losing its bark. And that’s worrisome.
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