In the Big Controversy over Google being forced by EUcrats to delete a 2007 BBC story about one of the villains of the Financial Meltdown, former Merrill Lynch chairman Stan O’Neal, the debate has so far been limited to “freedom of the press” versus “our right to privacy.”
It’s the perfect frame of debate, from Google’s point of view, because it diverts us from the real problem that brought us to this point in the first place: Google’s enormous monopoly power over “what we know”—or at least, what we think we know. If it’s not Google-able, it’s presumed to have been deleted from the historical record. And that presumption is based on the way most of us search or source information.
Never in history has one corporation and one source had so much power over what we know and don’t know. Nothing comes close — not the BBC, not CNN, not the New York Times — nothing even approaches Google’s centralization of information across borders, across media platforms, across industries. In part because no information or knowledge platform has ever offered anything as practical as Google; in part because Google acts like a predatory monopoly, warping everything in its way.
It’s because of Google’s awesome monopolistic power over what we know that we worry about losing our privacy, and want the right to be forgotten within their search results; and it’s because we’re so reliant on Google as the monopoly on knowledge that it doesn’t take much to spark latent (if misdirected) fears about Orwellian censorship and slippery slopes if an article like the BBC story on Stan O’Neal is deleted from the monopoly’s record.
Google’s monopoly on what we know, and its ability and apparent willingness to exploit its monopoly power against others, was on display in another area just last month, when eBay’s search results mysteriously plummeted shortly after an eBay-funded study found that Google Ads are pretty much useless. That, and the fact that eBay is increasingly seen as a competitor with Google’s growing e-commerce business, revealed yet another dangerous aspect to Google’s awesome monopoly power, as eBay search results were suddenly demoted to the business-deadly back pages.
It seems to me that this—Google’s monopoly power to discriminate information, to decide what we know and what we won’t know, and how accessible or inaccessible that information is— is the real relevant story to the EU controversy over the right to be forgotten. This sort of power goes well beyond abstract principles about freedom of speech, and into the mundane, existential power over businesses, industries, jobs, and the political economy. Why should we allow one company so much power over our privacy, and over competing businesses, jobs, sectors? How is that in the interests of all the world’s non-shareholders of Google Inc?
And yet, as Nathaniel Mott wrote today, so long as we’re focused on what’s in front of our faces, we’ll be screaming at each other over whether or not it’s more right to force Google to delete a link, or more right to protect our right to search for that link on Google. The Internet behemoth is able to use our fears of censorship to whip up grassroots outrage that happens to dovetail with its own corporate interests.
We’ve been conditioned for a long time now to believe that our interests in freedom of knowledge, freedom of the press, and freedom of information, are aligned with Google’s corporate interests. Google really does want every bit of information to be free, because it extracts rent from every piece of information it puts out there for us, and we need Google’s services, whether we like it or not.
The real question is, do we need, and should we accept, a all-powerful monopoly like Google with such a stranglehold over what we know, and what we think we know?