- - Tuesday, December 4, 2018


Omniscience has always been regarded as the sole province of God, but now Google thinks it’s big enough to depose Him. Aping the Almighty is the hubris that inevitably carries a price. The technology giant that bestrides the world of information is under assault on numerous fronts for getting a little too abusive of free speech. But if Google and the other giants of Silicon Valley are going to be true to their vow to “do the right thing,” they will need help.

When Google CEO Sundar Pichai testifies Wednesday to the House Judiciary Committee, he’s likely to get rough treatment from Congress over his company’s outsized power to control what their users see, hear and perhaps even think. He will likely be relieved to share the spotlight the following day with executives of Microsoft, Qualcomm and Oracle at a White House roundtable with President Trump to discuss emerging innovation and growth in the tech sector.

Republicans in particular have had well-grounded suspicions that Google’s giant search engine, whose name has become the de facto term for searches on the Web, games its algorithms to keep out conservative content. Google’s “who, me?” response fools only the hopelessly naive.

A case in point: Google employees engaged in a back-and-forth online discussion in the wake of Donald Trump’s 2016 presidential election over whether to obscure conservative opinion on Google’s search engine, according to internal communications obtained by The Daily Caller. “I think we have a responsibility to expose the quality and truthfulness of sources — because not doing so hides real information under loud noises,” wrote Google engineer Scott Byers. “Beyond that, let’s concentrate on teaching critical thinking. A little bit of that would go a long way. Let’s make sure that we reverse things in four years — demographics will be on our side.”

Such a revelation would hardly surprise President Trump, who has frequently hammered online information providers for bias. “Google & others are suppressing voices of Conservatives and hiding information and news that is good,” the president tweeted in August. “They are controlling what we can & cannot see.”

Google is not alone in its attempt to shape its content to suit a particular political viewpoint. Social media heavyweights Facebook and Twitter have preceded Google on the congressional hot seat and both have taken tongue-lashings for left-wing bias. Congress has spent years tied in knots over solutions to threats to free speech and privacy online. Any attempt by a political body to eliminate political bias risks being revealed as biased itself.

Fundamentally, the dominant online content platforms take cues from user questions about what information to distribute. Google distills conclusions on their likes based on how they respond, and market that information to commercial and political enterprises looking to sell a variety of goods. Until recently, information consumers have naively allowed their attention to chase after the images on their Web screens. There’s little awareness of how those images are tailored to influence choices.

Russian efforts to influence the 2016 presidential election awoke Americans to the danger of unwary Web surfing, but injection of political bias and intrusions into personal privacy are headaches not easily remedied by government involvement. The conservative remedy for threats to free speech is customarily not government intervention, but more free speech.

Size matters, however, and Google’s dominance has squelched competition from other voices. The search engine’s share of the world market for the 12-month period ending in October was 93 percent, according to Statcounter, an online Web traffic aggregator. Facebook boasted 2.3 billion monthly active users as of September, according to Statista.com. Market dominance of these proportions has invited Justice Department anti-trust action in the past, such as the 1982 break-up the Bell telephone monopoly. Americans would benefit from federal action that results in a greater number of choices to choose from.

A more educated and careful weighing of information by users would be equally valuable, but that’s not something to be directed from Washington. Only consumers anchored in solid core values can resist the emotional pull of enticing digital information, opinions and images. In the end, it’s the responsibility of individuals to see through the bias.

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