February 18, 2003

One Google to Rule Them All

Everybody loves Google, yes? It makes the internet work, answers our questions, plus its friendly and pop-up free. Brand Channel just named it the brand of the year, number one the world over. Apple built Google right into the interface to its new browser. Google is rapidly becoming essential, perhaps even omnipotent. And that is the problem. Google is rapidly become the biggest threat to the free internet around.

Saw Howard Reingold speak the other night, at KQED's Media Salon. Towards the end of the discussion, the moderator (whose name escapes me, sorry) posed a very interesting question. He mention that despite being in the television business, he often wishes that TV was never invented. The negative impact it has on culture far out weighs its benefits, at least in his opinion. The question he asked was:

"What can we do now in order to prevent us from looking back in 10 years and wishing the internet never existed?"

My head rolled around that a bit, as the conversation continued. All the usual fears of media monopolies, baby bells, and governments big brothering the internet to further their powers. All legitimate outside threats, but I wasn't getting too worried. The architecture of the internet still encourages free expression, and I've yet to see a model by which any of these forces could really seize control. Not that its impossible, but I'm not losing any sleep, yet.

My mind kept racing. Where was there a legitimate threat of the internet being controlled? It hit me. Google. The most powerful address online, the most powerful organization online. And we happily give it this power. For good reason too, its the best search engine around. But as its powers increase so do the threats it presents.

We rely upon Google to return legitimate answers to our search queries. And its won our trust by returning good results. So far its all good. But Google has the power to alter it search results. It can subtly send people to websites in favor of one political viewpoint. If Google blocks a website, how easily could we find it? Its easy to put something up online, but its worthless if no one can find it.

Search engines are highly centralized. There are only a handful of companies offering the service. As the volume of information grows it is likely that it will cost even more to start up a new search engine. The result? An industry that is relatively easy to control. Control Google and you've got the internet in a choke hold. Control both Google and the few companies competing with it and you've got the internet on lockdown.

Google has already shown a few warning signs. They've caved into pressure from the Scientologists and China and restricted search results. They leave all moral decisions to one of their founders. So far he seems to be doing a decent job, but how long can that last? What happens when it becomes a publicly traded corporation? And its profits start declining? What happens if the FBI knocks on its door and asks it to restrict access to "subversive" websites.

The more we love Google the more power we give it to. Its a classic catch-22, use Google and it gains the power to use us. And more importantly it increases the ability of other powers to use Google to use us. And as the internet becomes increasingly corporate and governments see it more and more of a threat, the risks increase. Less then a century ago, radio and tv were both seen as liberating, democratic technologies. And when used right they can be. But they are rarely used right nowadays. Lets make sure the internet doesn't fall into the same trap.

What can we do? Strengthening Google's competitors might help a bit, except it means living with inferior search results. But if one wants to hotbot will allow you to search using 4 different engines, one is Google, but Inktomi, FAST and Teoma are also available.

One idea for the lazyweb is a decentralized distributed computing search engine. The processing and storing of search results can be done on millions of computers on their downtime ala SETI@home. (On a side note, its pretty pitiful that the most popular distributed computing project around is devoted to something as impractical and absurd as the search for extraterrestrial life). The mechanics of such a system are beyond me, so I can only hope it's a possibility.

Until then all we really have is faith that Google and company will return reliable results. "Information wants to be free", yeah I hope so. Its pretty obvious that a lot of people want to control information. And if we want it to be free then we need to keep building the tools that will keep it that way.

Posted by William Blaze at February 18, 2003 11:22 AM | TrackBack
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