What to do with Google—nothing, break it up, nationalise it, turn it into a public utility, treat it as a public space, or something else?
Google has become a service that one cannot go without if one wants to be a well-adapted participant in society. For many, Google is the single most important source of information. Yet people do not have any understanding of the way Google individually curates contents for its users. Its algorithms are secret. For the past year, and as a result of the European Court of Justice’s ruling on the right to be forgotten, Google has been deciding which URLs to delist from its search results on the basis of personal information being “inaccurate, inadequate or no longer relevant.” The search engine has reported that it has received over 250,000 individual requests concerning 1 million URLs in the past year, and that it has delisted around 40% of the URLs that it has reviewed. As was made apparent in a recent open letter from 80 academics urging Google for more transparency, the criteria being used to make these decisions are also secret. We have no idea about what sort of information typically gets delisted, and in what countries. The academics signing the letter point out how Google has been charged with the task of balancing privacy and access to information, thereby shaping public discourse, without facing any kind of public scrutiny. Google rules over us but we have no knowledge of what the rules are.
One might think that, if the problem is that Google has become too powerful, the solution might be to break it up as a monopoly so that instead of having one dominant search engine, we end up with multiple smaller search engines. This alternative, however, is not without problems. It is easier to regulate one search engine than to regulate dozens of them. If one is concerned about privacy and the right to be forgotten, for example, having one dominant search engine (or two or three) is likely to be a more favourable option for exercising better control. Having too many search engines may also carry inconveniences for users. Part of what makes Google so useful is the large number of users it has, which improves its data and makes its tools more accurate.
If breaking up Google is not desirable, what are the options? Decades ago, one might have considered nationalisation. Today, however, that does not seem like a realistic option, among many other reasons, because Google is an international business, and it could not be nationalised by a single country or political union. Perhaps more importantly, it would probably be unfair to Google. A business should not be punished for its success.
It can be argued, however, that an institution with so much power and which profoundly shapes the lives of a good portion of the world population should not be a business that, by definition, has profit as its primary concern. In order to secure the interests of the public, companies like Google must be better regulated.
One option is to turn Google into a public utility. Adam Thierer has argued, however, that Google cannot be a public utility for two main reasons: 1. It does not possess the potential to become a natural monopoly. That is, the hottest networks constantly change, and Google could quickly become a thing of the past. Mark Jamison recounts how, when Google search results contained a noticeable error on the morning of January 31, 2009, users simply switched to Yahoo and other search engines. 2. It is not an essential facility. That is, if Google were to suddenly disappear, the economy would not shut down as it would if electricity was lost. Furthermore, one of the most important justifications to regulate public utilities is to guarantee reasonable prices, but Google is a “free” service. This last point is debatable, since Google makes users sell their data in exchange for its services, and it can be argued that the amount and type of personal data being sold is an unreasonable price to pay.
A further option is to treat Google as a privately owned public space. After all, Google does not provide a physical service like electricity or water. Rather, it has created a (virtual) space where people can search for whatever interests them. At least in the United Kingdom, however, legislation of privately owned public spaces is controversial. Private owners can restrict or refuse entry to members of the public—a policy that does not exactly protect public interest. Moreover, Google is not just any public space. Google is the contemporary version of the ancient agora. Together with Facebook, it is the central spot in the international city of the Internet. It is where people go to find each other to exchange ideas, information, and goods.
Perhaps none of the options explored here are good enough, and maybe this is a sign that we cannot fall back on old formulas for regulation. We need new international laws that adequately reflect the realities of our time. We need regulation that acknowledges giants of the Internet such as Google as the virtual agoras they have become, ensures that public interest is satisfactorily represented and protected, and at the same time does not punish Google as a business for its success. It’s a tall order, but we should settle for nothing less.