For a Public Search Engine

For a Public Search Engine

Studies show that insiders at Google could, if they wanted, covertly alter voter preferences. The very possibility is a threat to democracy.


If online search rankings can influence our buying habits, why not our voting habits? That question led research psychologist and former editor of Psychology Today Robert Epstein to co-write a study asserting that manipulating search-engine results could be a surefire and undetectable way to manipulate election results.

The study’s participants, selected to resemble the US voting population, viewed the results for two candidates on a mock search engine called Kadoodle. By front-loading Kadoodle’s results with articles favoring one of the candidates, Epstein shifted enough of his participants’ voter preferences toward the favored candidate to simulate the swing of a close election. But here’s the kicker: in one round of the study, Epstein configured Kadoodle so that it hid the manipulation from 100 percent of the participants.

The study, titled “Democracy at Risk” and slated for presentation at this year’s meeting of the Association for Psychological Science, suggests a scenario in which insiders at a dominant search engine (at the moment, Google) could, if they chose, covertly pick members of Congress and even the president. What’s more, says Epstein, it is perfectly legal for a search engine to behave this way.

Epstein, who had a public quarrel with Google last year over security warnings on his website triggered by a hacker, is quick to point out that he is not claiming that Google or any other search engine has fixed an election—merely that it is possible to do so.

Michael Fischer, a professor of computer science at Yale, agrees that there is cause for concern. “To the extent that somebody wants to build a politically biased search engine, they are certainly capable of doing that,” Fischer says. “We don’t have any way of knowing what biases, if any, the search engines we currently use have, and this is a concern not just for elections, but for all areas of our democracy.”

After reviewing a summary of the study sent by The Nation, a Google spokesperson repeated verbatim an earlier statement the company had made on this topic: “Providing relevant answers has been the cornerstone of Google’s approach to search from the very beginning. It would undermine people’s trust in our results and company if we were to change course.” In other words, not a denial that Google has the power to surreptitiously alter voter preferences but an implication that it would never use it. As Google executive chair Eric Schmidt famously said moments before implying that his company could predict the stock market, “There are many, many things that Google could do, that we chose not to do.”

Epstein believes that the mere existence of the power to fix election outcomes, wielded or not, is a threat to democracy, and he asserts that search engines should be regulated accordingly. But regulatory analogies for a many-armed, ever-shifting company like Google are tough to pin down. For those who see search results as a mere passive relaying of information, like a library index or a phone book, there is precedent for regulation. In the past, phone books—with a monopoly on the flow of certain information to the public—were prevented from not listing businesses even when paid to do so. In the 1990s, similar reasoning led to the “must carry” rule, which required cable companies to carry certain channels to communities where they were the only providers of those channels.

Regulating search engines raises a red flag for those who say that search results are actually First Amendment–protected free speech. Search rankings for news-related topics on Google, for example, are sometimes tweaked by modifications to the algorithm made by Google’s human engineers. The tweaks are meant to keep primary news sources more prominent than the blogs and social media sites that link back to them. For some, that makes search results an editorial opinion, and requiring Google to change its results would be like the government telling The New York Times which headlines to print, and in which order.

Frank Pasquale, professor of law at Seton Hall University, says it is possible to have First Amendment protection for search results while still allowing for some regulation and oversight. “Search results do communicate a message, but not all communication is protected by the First Amendment,” says Pasquale, “and even protected communication isn’t totally deregulated.” In the case of Google, he adds, the company has tried to have it both ways, claiming that it’s engaging in free speech in certain situations and merely transferring passive information in others. Pasquale argues that First Amendment protection is crucial, but not as a smoke screen for deregulation: “What you have at the moment is a Supreme Court that sees the First Amendment as a way to deregulate big business. The danger is to let that happen in the area of online search.”

There is one way to protect the public interest in online search without settling the thorny question of regulation: establish a search engine free of commercial pressure and open to public oversight—a PBS of search engines, if you will. It could be paid for by a tax on the profits of commercial search engines, disbursed by Congress in the same hands-off way it funds the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. As a news source for Americans, digital has overtaken print and is set to overtake TV and radio, so a public search engine is the natural sequel to PBS and NPR. The massive head start that its commercial rivals enjoy is no reason to dismiss a public search engine as a nonstarter. Public television wasn’t founded until decades after the start of commercial television, but today it is not just America’s most trusted news provider but its most trusted institution of any kind.

No less an authority than Google founders Sergey Brin and Larry Page, in a paper they wrote as Stanford graduate students, expressed a similar wish: “We believe the issue of advertising causes enough mixed incentives that it is crucial to have a competitive search engine that is transparent and in the academic realm.” More than fifteen years after the advent of online search, that is an ideal we are still searching for. Evan Leatherwood

Earlier this year, William F. Baker wrote about the FTC’s aborted investigation into Google’s search indexing, and whether the search giant favored its own rankings in its results.

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