Money doesn’t just talk in Washington. It shouts. And these days, influential tech giants like Google are accused of squelching any informed discussion about some of their business practices.
If there’s any doubt about the dubiousness of some of these practices, consider that European Commission fined Google this summer a record $2.7 billion for using the dominance of its search engine – a commanding 90 percent share of the market—to unfairly promote Google Product Search (GPS), its comparison shopping service, which had floundered when initially introduced. It did so by unfairly manipulating browser results to promote and vastly expand GPS market share.
African-American publishers have already raised concerns that Internet companies are able to engineer the popularity of many types of stories.
It would be wrong to assume that we here in the United States are immune to power tech companies wield. Indeed, the company’s dominance has widespread ramifications, especially in communities of color where small, cash-strapped news outlets devote coverage to issues that impact these communities. Consider the fact that African-American publishers have already raised concerns that Internet companies are able to engineer the popularity of many types of stories.
“Like many other publishers who have recently written on Facebook’s growing power over the media and what Americans read, we too are alarmed with one company having such dominance in news aggregation,” Benjamin F. Chavis, president and CEO of the NNPA, wrote last year. “Online hubs like Facebook are able to engineer which stories catch on. And they’re able to decide by algorithmic fiat, which bylines, viewpoints and subject matter is promoted to the masses.”
Google’s control over browser results is equally troubling. How deeply do you read through a search engine’s responses to your queries? Maybe you peruse the top four or five? Do you pay any attention to the results on a second page? In essence, Google appears to have marginalized GPS’s competitors—American as well as European firms—by intentionally pushing them further down the search engine’s results list.
Those firms may have provided a better service. But given the logic of consumer-browsing behavior online, why would a anybody choose what appears to be a lower ranked, less popular and less efficient service? And so, it appears Google GPS’s competitors were assigned to a search engine purgatory, depriving them of ad revenues from retailers seeking visibility on comparison-shopping services that are listed as the most popular browsers.
Google is appealing the European Union penalty, as it has the right to do. But its executives and leaders should not use the company’s wealth and influence to silence critics. This is what appears to have transpired after a scholar at New America, a major player in policy debates, posted a statement praising the European Union’s penalty on the organization’s website.
Barry C. Lynn, a Google critic who wrote the offending post, was ousted from the think tank funded by the tech giant. It is probably safe to assume that Google made its displeasure known to New America, a group that has received more than $21 million from Google through the years and whose chairman emeritus is none other than Eric Schmidt, the executive chairman of Alphabet, Inc., Google’s parent company.
The incident involving Lynn, who has vowed to continue his work on the dangers of unfettered capital and the consolidation of corporate power, is the latest and perhaps most publicly known example of Google’s practice of allocating resources to think tanks, activists, and educational institutions and then pulling strings to shape “consumer voices” in the company’s favor.
If Lynn’s dismissal doesn’t underscore the dangers of the seemingly unfettered power of tech companies like Google, then maybe the current debate about consumer privacy will.
Khalil Abdullah is a writer, editor, and business consultant. A former national editor and reporter for New America Media, and a former managing editor for the Washington Afro-American, Khalil staffed the Telecommunications and Energy Committee of the National Black Caucus of State Legislators from 1995 to 2000 when he served as Communications Director. He was NBCSL’s executive director from 2000 to 2003.