The full-blown crisis of confidence that has overwhelmed Facebook and resulted in a flight of talent from that company has now come to Google. As we learnt late last week, 1,400 of Google’s own employees signed a letter protesting the opacity of the company’s decision to launch a censored version of its search engine in China, a project code-named Dragonfly. This follows on the heels of a similar employee protest a few months ago about the use of Google AI technology by the Pentagon (the company subsequently ended the Department of Defense contract).
As was clear from the letter, Google’s engineers understand the stakes of their actions, even if the company’s leadership doesn’t. “To make ethical choices, Googlers need to know what we’re building. Right now, we don’t,” said the letter. “Our industry has entered a new era of ethical responsibility: the choices we make matter on a global scale. Yet most of us only learned about project Dragonfly through news reports in early August.”
It was only a matter a time. While Google has escaped most of the worst of the Big Tech backlash since the 2016 election manipulation crisis, that’s only because it was being measured against Facebook — quite a low bar. The truth is that the company monetises personal data via targeted advertising in more or less exactly the way Facebook does, yet is much more systemically important. We can ultimately do without social media, but not search. Google is also more advanced than any other single entity — either company or government — when it comes to AI research, according to experts like Kai-fu Lee, the Chinese venture capitalist who launched Google in China years ago, before the company decided to pull out of the market following Chinese government hacking of its corporate infrastructure to garner information about human rights activists in the country.
This internal crisis over the decision to re-enter China reminds me of a quote I recently read in Ken Auletta’s book, Googled: The End of the World As We Know It. This book was written way back in 2009, and the quote was from Columbia professor and tech expert Tim Wu, who has since written his own terrific book on the cognitive problems of Big Tech, entitled The Attention Merchants. As Wu put it back then, “Google is a precocious company. Great grades. Perfect IPO. A typical high school standout. The basic problem is whether they remain true to their founding philosophy. I don’t just mean ‘don’t be evil’. Will they stay focused on search, on their founding philosophy, which is really an engineers’ aesthetic of getting you to what you want as fast as you can and then getting out of the way?” Or, he asked, will Google become “a source of content, a platform, a destination that seeks to keep people in a walled Google garden? I predict that Google will wind up at war with itself.”
How prescient. All those things have come to pass, and Google is indeed now at war with itself. And the stakes are high, because for Google, like all IP-driven companies, the value is in human capital — if the top engineers start leaving, even a company as big and powerful as Google will eventually stumble. The Chinese search engine scandal highlights several things. First, it’s been a while since Google has lived by its own “don’t be evil” mantra (I’d argue the shift really started when the company decided to build revenue via targeted advertising, which is something that the founders had initially felt was unethical — see Larry Page and Sergey Brin’s very first paper on the topic, where they lay it out, in Appendix A, “Advertising and Mixed Motives”). The model of data collection and monetisation allows the company to build better search and app functions, but it also creates huge information asymmetries between users and Google (we have no idea the value of what we’re giving away versus what we are getting) and also winnows out potential competitors that don’t have access for the data.
How to fix this problem? I’m getting interested in the model of progressive data-sharing, which was recently suggested by Viktor Mayer-Schöenberger and Thomas Ramge in their new book Reinventing Capitalism in the Age of Big Data. In this model, companies with more than a 10 per cent share of any data-driven market would be forced to allow other companies access to that data, which would be encrypted, over time, to even the playing field. Individuals might also be able to request transfer of their own data to competitors. The idea is to try and curb the market distorting power of the superstar companies without the blunt force of antitrust.
As for China, Google and the other tech firms that do business there have some big decisions to make. The era in which multinational corporations can simply fly 35,000 feet over the problems of various nation states is ending. Google positions itself behind the scenes in Washington as a national tech champion for America, often as a way of avoiding regulation. But if that’s the case, you have to question whether they should do business in China at all, let alone via a censored search engine. Xi Jinping is running an increasingly repressive regime with no intention of moving closer to the West. It’s hard to understand what’s in it for Google to be there running a search engine that allows that regime to censor and monitor users — aside from profits. Google’s engineers should stand by their “code yellow” request for more transparency.
- Foreign Affairs has dedicated its entire September/October issue to the battle over the internet, which it has dubbed “World War Web”. In their piece, Viktor Mayer-Schöenberger, a professor of internet governance at Oxford, and Thomas Ramge, a tech correspondent for the Economist have come up with some of the smartest ideas about how to curb the power of the tech titans that I’ve seen. I flick at one above; the others are worth reading and pondering.
- I spent a couple of days last week moderating at Kent Presents, a sort of mini Aspen Ideas type festival in Kent, Connecticut. There I presided over conversations about the future of technology, including one with a source and friend, Roger McNamee, an investor of both Google and Facebook and former mentor to Mark Zuckerberg who has become and an unlikely activist for Big Tech regulation. I also spoke with Cal Newport, a professor at Georgetown who says you’ll do better in your career if you cut yourself completely off from social media (hint: it’s about reclaiming attention and deep focus). Video will be posted here in the next few days. Check it out.
- And in the FT, check out Laura Pitel’s very smart Big Read on the effect of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s power grab on the country, and how we got to where we are today.
Have a great rest of your August — I’ll publish my next Swamp Notes on September 4. In the meantime, my colleague Ed Luce will be with you.
Edward Luce responds
Rana, you’ve offered a wealth of thoughtful, technically sophisticated literature on how we should regulate Big Tech. Politics ought to be grappling with this, particularly given Google’s re-entry into China. I cannot help but see the vast gulf between the kind of actions that are needed — your embrace of data-sharing is intriguing — and the Trump administration’s deconstruction of the administrative state. Agencies are being gutted. Conflicts of interest are multiplying. Regulatory capture is an understatement. Should Brett Kavanaugh be confirmed, we will also have the most deregulatory-friendly Supreme Court for decades. In this environment, companies like Google and Apple face very little threat of coherent US regulation. My guess is that Washington will be absent from the regulatory game for the foreseeable future. For better or for worse, it is Brussels and China that will shape the future of global tech regulation. Probably for worse.
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