Every Google search leaves you on the losing end of a simple, painless transaction. Unless you’re the tape-over-the-webcam type, you probably don’t spend much time thinking about your place in the twenty-first century barter economy, but the billionaire playboy who runs your search engine isn’t the President of a charity. In exchange for your quiet acquiescence, you get access to the largest store of knowledge in human history: fully searchable, at a price unknown, under the all-seeing eyes of Sergey Brin and Larry Page.
In return for your personal data and your divided attention, Sergey and Larry give you easy access to the news, online education, and the world’s largest shopping mall. Your favorite search engine may be exploitative and undemocratic, but it provides a valuable service. Still—could there be a better way?
In all fairness to Google, we’ve all contributed to the problem. Americans have near-universally (and unthinkingly) consented to living on the digital playgrounds of Russian trolls, government spooks, and the corporate elite. At their core, these privately owned playgrounds are data-driven. Your search engine holds on to your data because it’s lucrative, and your data is lucrative because knowledge itself is lucrative.
To be precise, personal knowledge is lucrative. Why? Your data gives a corporation or a propagandist a complete, exploitable picture of you. Marketers buy access to that picture because it’s the best weapon they have in the unending battle for the modern American mind.[*] Data is the key to attention, and few data are as telling as your search history—privacy hardly enters the equation. With your tacit consent, Google becomes the middleman between you and an industry built on distraction and manipulation.
Taking data in place of cash is an ingenious solution to an obvious problem: Google is a monopoly, and the trustbusters at the Department of Justice hate monopolies.[†] Google’s few challengers—Bing and Yahoo in the United States—are functional but weak. Google is saved by a loophole made easy-to-exploit by American regulators’ limited conception of monopoly power. For the nearsighted free-marketeer, a monopoly only becomes a problem if it overcharges consumers.
There are two major problems with this limited understanding of monopolies. First, it gives monopolies an easy way out if they can charge consumers in something less tangible than cash. For the monopoly, your data is easy to monetize, but for you, it’s difficult to price. You may be overpaying Google, but as long as you pay in data instead of cash, you’ll never know. A data-driven approach to maximizing profits lets Google reap the benefits of monopoly power without attracting the scrutiny of regulators who only see the bottom-line.
Second, the private search engine is deeply undemocratic. It’s easy to forget that monopoly power means far more than price-gouging consumers. Controlling an industry gives a private company social and political power on a scale that’s typically reserved for the state. In our liberal democracy, the state rules by the consent of the governed. In the digital economy, Amazon and Google rule by their share of the market.
Ultimately, it’s the power of the ballot box that keeps the state in check—a check that private corporations have replaced with board meetings and the stock exchange. The gateway to the world’s greatest library lies in private hands. Whether or not Sergey, Larry, and the rest of the techno-elite plan on using this power against us anytime soon, leaving it to a single corporation is not a risk worth taking.
Its many flaws aside, the private sector has given us a few challenges to the Google model. Take DuckDuckGo, the search engine that promises not to collect your data. DuckDuckGo is an admirable experiment, but refusing to collect any data hurts the user experience. It’s not data collection itself that’s the problem; it’s the sale and irresponsible use of data. Keeping track of your search history enables search engines to show you better results, so unless you want to resign yourself to the search engine of the past, DuckDuckGo is not the answer.
Aside from the problem of functionality, it also suffers from a problem of profitability: a search engine without data is no investor’s dream come true. While it manages to stay afloat by selling ads, few companies would choose an untargeted ad on DuckDuckGo over a targeted ad on a Google. Whatever its ambitions, it faces the same problem as every other private search engine. In the private sector, there just isn’t another viable model.
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When the private sector fails—and in search, it’s failed us all—it’s up to the public sector to find a solution. In this case, that means replacing ad revenue with tax revenue and mounting a public challenge to Google. Building a better search engine from scratch would be impractical, but a government buyout of an existing search engine could radically restructure our relationship with the Internet for the better. In search, the American people deserve a public option.
I’m not going to argue that we should nationalize Google. Instead, nationalize Bing.[‡] In this country, we usually think of the “public option” as a stepping-stone to universal healthcare. In the world of search engines, a public option could force Google to prioritize privacy and accessibility to compete with taxpayer-funded, ad-free browsing.
Whether or not Google found a way to beat the public option, consumers would have the unprecedented freedom to browse in peace. Nationalizing Bing is a far cry from nationalizing a whole industry, and it shouldn’t have to end in a full nationalization. The point is to force Google to consider not just corporate interests, but the interests of the American people. The public option would operate without selling your data to private corporations, and every American would have a material stake in the public gateway to the Internet.
Admittedly, a state-owned search engine would face some of the same problems as a privately owned search engine. The most pressing concern would be an expansion of the NSA’s domestic surveillance program. The public option would obviously need a legislative buffer between its data and the American national-security apparatus. It would have to function independently and apolitically—not unlike the Federal Reserve. But if there were abuses or a breach, the beauty of the public option is that it’s not the only option. Users could easily revert to the private sector, and in the wake of a taxpayer exodus, the public sector has to answer to the voters.
Implemented properly, the public option would put knowledge back in the hands of the people. Whatever failings a public search engine might have in practice, it would introduce much-needed competition on the basis of privacy and respect for the user. If you believe in a right to your own data and universal access to ideas, you should believe in the public option. The solution may be imperfect, but competition for profit isn’t serving the American consumer. It’s time to start a competition for equity, privacy, and democratic values.
[*] Tim Wu, the Columbia professor behind “net neutrality,” discusses this problem in a depth far beyond the scope of this column in The Attention Merchants. Alternatively, listen to this interview he did with Ezra Klein.
[†] It’s unclear whether this is the case under the current administration (or under the last two), but I’d like to think they’re still around. This is, after all, a column named “Bull Moose.”
[‡] Which is not to suggest that something shouldn’t be done to break up Google.