The Conservatism of Google
Chris Peterson is an admissions officer, teaching assistant, and researcher at MIT. He works at the intersection of digital strategy, new media, and social change.
In addition to his research affiliation with Civic, he is on the Board of the National Coalition Against Censorship, a Fellow at the National Center for Technology and Dispute Resolution, and the founder, owner, and sole-proprietor of BurgerMap.org.
He earned his B.A. in Critical Legal Studies from the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, where he completed his thesis on Facebook privacy and/as contextual integrity advised by Ethan Katsh and Alan Gaitenby. He earned his S.M. in Comparative Media Studies from MIT, where he completed his thesis on user-generated censorship advised by Ian Condry, Ethan Zuckerman, and Nancy Baym.
The Conservatism of Google
Google, in its mission, famously aspires to “organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful.” But a mission is a mission, not a modus operandi. Examining what Google does, rather than what it aims to do, reveals the surprisingly conservative role it actually plays in the world.
In principle Google imagines itself a progressive, even revolutionary, organization, which through information technology brings about change, specifically change in line with liberal democratic freedom. The ideas of cyber-utopianism - that certain technologies are liberating in a particular kind of way, and should be deployed to achieve those ends - constitute the conceptual foundation upon which the public myth of Google rests.
In practice Google behaves much more conservatively. By this I do not mean that it has a particular reactionary political or social agenda. Instead, I mean that Google generally respects rather than repudiates traditions and institutions, takes the "is" as the "ought", and by doing so perpetuates and legitimates the existing order in a given context despite (and often at the immediate expense of) its mission.
Often this conservatism manifests through the simple everyday practices of its engineers. Earlier this semester I attended a talk by a lead developer for Google Products who described the technical challenges of running a shopping aggregator online. Afterwards a student raised his hand. He was from Wyoming, he said, and he had long relied on Google Products to buy guns and ammunition. However, since May, Google had prevented him from doing so, despite the fact that he was legally licensed to own and operate them. How and why did Google make that decision?
The engineer explained, with a matter-of-fact air, that Google didn’t want to sell anyone anything which they may not be legally be able to have in their locale. Their guidelines were not only law, but policy: specifically advertising policy. If AdWords wouldn’t advertise it in a given location, then Google wouldn’t sell it there.
Judging by this statement our engineer seems to think of law and policy much like he thinks of coding libraries: neutral tools, facts, and standards which he can import and reference to do work for him. After all, why should he reinvent geographically specific distribution limitations any more than he should reinvent the while loop? This rationale is perfectly reasonable, profoundly conservative, and conceals messy regulations behind clean code.
Sometimes Google articulates its support for order, as when it began blocking ThePirateBay from appearing as prominently in search. A Google spokesperson defended the move technocratically, saying that "this measure is one of several that we have implemented to curb copyright infringement online." No longer does Google present Search as an impartial exercise of algorithmic objectivism (query, pilgrim, and the truth shall be revealed). Instead, having embraced an editorial intermediary role, Google submits to, reproduces, and further legitimates the dominant legal and cultural paradigms.
Some may see this as Google simply abiding by the law. That may be so. My point is it’s hard to reconcile such a method with the Google mission. Whereas Google's mission is progressive and empowering (it will universally distribute the tools of information so the people may do what they will), Google's practice is conservative and paternalistic (...unless you might do something unacceptable, in which case you're out of luck).
In the gap between Google's principles and practice we find again the answer to the question posed by Tim Wu and Jack Goldsmith in Who Controls the Internet? As Wu and Goldsmith argued in 2006, early cyber-utopians such as Johnson & Post and John Perry Barlow were admirably aspirational but ultimately incorrect in their belief that, as Johnson and Post put it, the Internet would be "[separated from] doctrine tied to territorial jurisdictions [such that] new rules will emerge."
Instead the precise opposite has occurred. Whatever its transformative effects may be, the Internet has not broken down the walls of country, culture, and law. To the contrary, it has been subjected to their inexorable emergence into a new medium. To borrow terms from Evgeny Morozov, this “realist" or "agnostic", rather than utopian, understanding is the one borne out by what Google actually does. One need look no further than Google’s decision to block “Innocence of Muslims” from YouTube in Libya and Egypt after the recent embassy attacks. The complex and potentially life-altering geopolitical considerations which led to that unusual move may have been reasonable, understandable, even “good”, but above all shrewdly realist, not idealist, in character.
I don’t mean this essay as an attack on Google. I think Google is generally run by smart, well-intentioned people operating under incredibly difficult real-world constraints. My purpose is rather to reveal how Google understands and interacts with those constraints and what the sociopolitical effects of those interactions might be. The answer, unfortunately, seems likely to disappoint anyone still hoping for a truly liberating information revolution to emanate magically from from the wizards of Mountain View.