(Editor’s note: This is the second in a series of three articles that examines how various Internet platforms like Google are working to silence your conservative voice.)
Remember when the Internet’s only search engine was named Archie? Designed in 1990 by a student at McGill University, Archie was just one of the essential tools created in the early part of that decade to help make sense of the new internet frontier. If you don’t remember that, you’re not alone. Today’s millennial probably never used the internet before Yahoo, created in 1994; an entire generation has no idea what the world without Google would be like – it’s even become a verb in English vernacular. (Go ahead and Google it.)
The search engine has become the average person’s link to every single piece of information ever known to humanity. Through the internet, anyone can sit on their couch and look at high definition photos of strange and unusual animal creatures that live miles down in the deep sea. The vast infinity of space is only a click away, and every classic tome ever created can be pulled up on a screen that fits in your hand – optimized for that particular display, of course. It’s the kind of futuristic society that Einstein could have only dreamed of, and for many Americans, it’s simply second nature.
There is a darker side to search engines, however. Imagine all the things that people put into a search engine: items you are interested in purchasing, emotional issues, sexual fetishes, physical symptoms too embarrassing to have a doctor examine. All of that information is, in essence, self-reported, making it far more valuable; it didn’t take long for the search engine companies to figure out that where there is information, there is power – and money.
Over time, two events happened. First, all that salacious data you punched into your keyboard became a product to be bought and sold. Marketing companies, advertising, even the government are all highly interested in the terms you put into a search engine.
You might be wondering why it matters if Google knows that some random person performed a search for something embarrassing or inflammatory. DuckDuckGo, an alternative to Google, explains on their website:
…when you search for something private, you are sharing that private search not only with your search engine, but also with all the sites that you clicked on (for that search). In addition, when you visit any site, your computer automatically sends information about it to that site… [including information that can] often be used to identify you directly.
So when you do that private search, not only can those other sites know your search terms, but they can also know that you searched it.
Perhaps even more disturbing than the lack of privacy in Google is the second event to occur over time, a phenomenon referred to as the filter bubble. Once Google knows what you like, think, believe, and want (because of all the data you already reported on yourself), it offers you results already tailored to what it thinks you want to see. Some find this convenient; the search engine personalizes results to make them more relevant to you.
The problem with the filter bubble, however, becomes evident quickly. If Google is only showing you things based on what you already believe, then you are never challenged by other viewpoints or information that may force you to think. In effect, Google is creating a little echo chamber just for you – and deciding what you will see. (For a graphic view of how this works, you can see this explanation by StartPage, an alternative search engine.)
In practice, Google hand-picking your results affects your entire experience. In a 2011 article for Geek.com, one image says it all. It depicts a search for the term “Egypt” done by two different people named Scott and Daniel, respectively. While both searchers’ results showed the Wikipedia entry for the country at the top, that’s where the similarities ended. Scott, the first searcher, had information about the ongoing Egyptian protests immediately following Wikipedia; Daniel, however, had information on travel and tourism to Egypt, with no mention of the government-changing protests.
This practice has detractors on both sides of the aisle. Eli Pariser of MoveOn.org gave a TED talk – a casual video presentation for the Technology, Entertainment, Design non-profit organization — in which he described the filter bubble and how it is a danger to democratic discourse. Pariser even wrote a book on the filter bubble; Mike Elgan, a columnist for Computerworld.com, summed it up like this:
In a nutshell, the book argues that the sophisticated personalization engines improve things in the short run. But in the long run, they dumb us down, reduce our exposure to new ideas and ultimately could lead to a society without a shared set of facts about the world. The personalized Internet favors the marketers and propagandists but provides an obstacle for people who are trying to introduce new ideas.
The kneejerk reaction may be to dismiss Elgan and Pariser’s positions; after all, MoveOn.org is not exactly known as a bastion of conservative or libertarian thought. The truth, however, is that the filter bubble affects all groups and internet users, regardless of their politics.
Taken down to brass tacks, Google collects everything you do and see on the web through its various products and website trackers, and then not only sells that data to marketing companies and the government, but then uses the data to create a particular version of the internet just for you. In ‘your’ internet, you will not see things that will challenge your thinking, or fall outside your already-known proclivities.
If you’re a conservative or libertarian, however, individual sites may not be shown to you at all; instead, you will see the more narrative-driven information. In 2015, American Conservative featured an article outlining how Google AdSense – the largest ad network on the internet – refuses to support sites that show images from Abu Ghraib, citing it as inappropriate content for public viewing. Meanwhile, ads for the grotesque series Faces of Death – showing grisly deaths and corpses – continued as fine for the public to see. In 2009, American Thinker found that websites for the Republican National Committee, Real Clear Politics, and Pajamas Media were all blocked from Google search results, with the caption “Warning – Visiting this website may harm your computer!”
In the wake of the “fake news” scandal following the 2016 presidential election, Google and Facebook decided to ban any sites they determined to be fake – an act that “disproportionately impacted right-wing news sites.” After receiving heat for that particular move, Google made a statement that it has updated its AdSense policy to block all sites that “misrepresent, misstate, or conceal information.”
These actions by the undisputed king of internet data and search engines create a dangerous scenario, in which Google fosters a culture of polarization while simultaneously presenting conservatives and libertarians with the impression that your viewpoint is so radical and fringe that there aren’t many out there who think like you. Instead, says Google, you should view this other information and see what everyone else thinks. Inevitably, their implicit argument goes, you would do better to go along with what’s popular.
What can users do if they want to see all of the information on a topic they type into Google? And how can someone use search engine technology without offering up personal details and a cornucopia of private data? According to Wired, Google started offering an opt-out for its personalized results in 2012, but is it enough when many users do not even know it exists, let alone how to flip that switch?
Enter the alternative search engines. Several fantastic websites have the same search power as Google, yet do not collect your information, search data, or identify you personally.
StartPage.com is one such site. It strips all personal data from the search, submits it to Google’s engines anonymously, and returns unfiltered results, giving you Google’s power without the nasty side effects. It also offers encrypted email, if you’re tired of Google using your Gmail as yet another repository for personal data it can mine and sell.
DuckDuckGo is another highly-respected alternative. Its website clearly states that it does not use ads, or track users regardless of whether they’re using private browsing mode. DDG, as it’s known, also uses what they call “bangs,” special search strings that allow users to search a site specifically. If a user types the phrase ‘!a shoes,’ for instance, DuckDuckGo will do a search on Amazon for shoes. At last count, there were 9,088 different bangs available.
With all the alternatives out there, there’s no reason for internet users to give away their private data and allow Google to act as a nanny, deciding what is appropriate to view. The internet has come a long way since Archie – a long way toward a total surveillance state. Users who want to “take back the country” can start today, by taking back their internet experience.