Saturday, May 16, 2020

The tyranny of algorithms - III

Because we focus so much on the miracles of Google, we are too often blind to the ways in which Google exerts control over its domain especially because it offers many services free. But there is an implicit non-monetary transaction between Google and its users. Google rules the Web through its power to determine which sites get noticed, and thus trafficked. It stores “cookies” in our Web browsers to track our clicks and curiosities. Google gives us Web search, e-mail, Blogger platforms, and YouTube videos. In return, Google gets information about our habits and predilections so that it can more efficiently target advertisements at us. Google’s core business is consumer profiling. It generates dossiers on many of us. Google, and our habits (trust, inertia, impatience) keep us from clicking past the first page of search results. Google understands the fact that default settings can work just as well as coercive technologies.

When confronted with questions about its dominance in certain markets, Google officials always protest that, on the Internet, barriers to entry are low, and thus any young firm with innovative services could displace Google the way Google displaced Yahoo and Alta Vista. As a Google lawyer said, “Competition is a click away.” That argument relies on the myth that Internet companies are weightless and virtual. It might be valid if Google were merely a collection of smart people and elegant computer code. Instead, Google is also a monumental collection of physical sites such as research labs, server farms, data networks, and sales offices. Replicating the vastness of Google’s processing power and server space is unimaginable for any technology company except Microsoft. The argument about user behavior could be valid if boycotting or migrating from Google did not incur significant downgrades in service by losing the advantages of integration with other Google services.

Google’s argument also ignores the “network effect” in communication markets: a service increases in value as more people use it. A telephone that is connected to only one other person has very limited value compared with one connected to 250 million people. YouTube is more valuable as a video platform because it attracts more contributors and viewers than any other comparable service. The more users it attracts, the more value each user derives from using it, and thus the more users it continues to attract. If only a few people used Google for Web searching, Google would not have the data it needs to improve the search experience. Network effects tend toward standardization and thus potential monopoly.

Google and other online vendors shy away from presenting effective ways for users to manage their privacy. An important point that Siva Vaidhyanathan makes in The Googlisation of Everything is that “celebrating freedom and user autonomy is one of the great rhetorical ploys of the global information economy … meaningful freedom implies real control over the conditions of one’s life. Merely setting up a menu with switches does not serve the interests of any but the most adept, engaged, and well-informed”.

Google sells our fancies, fetishes, predilections, and preferences to advertisers. While Google provides users with the information that they seek, seemingly for free, it collects the gigabytes of personal information and creative content that millions of Google users provide for free to the Web everyday and sells this information to advertisers of millions of products and services. Google runs an instant auction among advertisers to determine which one is placed highest on the list of ads that run across the top or down the right-hand column of the search results page.

Although Google’s contextual advertising and instant auctions often serve the interests of small firms, its freedom to set such rates at any level it desires allows it to crowd out some of the small firms that have grown to depend on Google for their most valuable advertising outlets, including small firms that are Google’s potential competitors. Another way in which Google limits its completion is by a touchy issue called cross-subsidization. Siva Vaidyanathan says in The Googlisation of Everything:
Google can use its prominence in people’s lives — the network effect — and its surplus revenues to support its other ventures — its online document business, for example. This poses a serious threat to small, creative companies that offer Web-based word processors, such as Zoho. If Google uses its profitable ventures to subsidize those activities destined to lose money, and if that practice kills off innovative potential competitors like Zoho, Google has crossed the line into shaky legal territory. 
Google refuses to acknowledge that its algorithms can malfunction sometimes and cause ethical problems. In To Save Everything Click Here, Evgeny Morozov gives the example of Google's Autocomplete feature. When you start typing your query, Google's algorithms gives four suggestions based on how other users have completed the query. It is a useful feature that saves a few seconds of the users' time. (Of course it often also limits the query to the given options because users are too lazy to complete their original query.)

Suppose in a deliberate attempt to smear your reputation, someone pays a large number of users to search for your name followed by the word 'pedophile'. Enough volume can be generated to make the term one of the search suggestions replacing a more benign term. Now everyone who searches for your name is also informed that you may be a pedophile.  You cannot appeal to the algorithms because they are supposed to be always right. Google will say, 'We believe that Google should not be held liable for terms that appear in Autocomplete as these are produced by computer algorithms based on searches from previous users, not by Google itself ' even though it knows that its algorithms can be gamed.

It cannot be ascertained for certain if Bettina Wulff, Germany's former first lady, was the victim of a hit job. In 2012, she sued Google for 'auto completing' searches for her name with terms like 'prostitute' and 'escort'. In Japan, Google was ordered to modify its Autocomplete search results after a man complained that that they linked him to crimes he did not commit. In France, Google was ordered to modify its Autocomplete search results after a man complained that they suggested that he was a 'satanist' and 'rapist'.

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