A few weeks ago I was writing on a firm called Cyber Investigation services because I’d sent a reader to them and they’d, for a reasonable price, eliminated an attack on the guy’s reputation. Given how often I’ve seen people reputations destroyed by attackers and what appears to be an increasing trend to use the web as a blackmail tool, I felt it important that people know of at least one service that I knew worked. However, as part of the chat with Cyber Investigations they made me aware that Google had changed their internal system so that it was far harder to manipulate search results from outside of Google.
Up until then I thought any search manipulation was likely done by a service hired by the politician in question and reflected on their Internet competence. It had seemed obvious to me that Google search results favored Obama in the recent ramp to elections and I’d, apparently in error, had attributed that to what appeared to be a unique Internet competence in his campaign (this competence is real).
However, it now appeared that Google was taking a hand and after writing a column on “the United States of Google” concern I got mail from a number of folks who have been watching this for some time. They suggested that it looked like Google had begun the process back in the Republican Primaries and had assured Romney’s win, knocking out any moderates in order to also assure an easier path for Obama. But they didn’t anticipate Obama screwing up in the debates and should Romney now win, it could be Google that accidently caused it.
Now what I’m saying, if Romney wins (which still is far from certain) isn’t that they would have assured Obama’s loss (because under this scenario that would be all Obama) or a Republican win but they may have assured that the Republican that won was the one they liked least. The lesson would be don’t mess with stuff you can’t control, and Google just crossed over from scary to terrifying in the way a small child with a shotgun would be terrifying. They’d have one of the most powerful weapons in the world but no clue how to use it effectively.
Let’s explore this a bit.
Google’s Increasing Government Involvement
Google is under fire from a number of vectors. Apple wants to put their Android platform out of business and Apple’s deceased ex-founder (Steve Jobs) basically pledged to kill Android with his near last public breath committing Apple’s billions to the task. Microsoft is attacking Google on search and helping drive an anti-trust action against Google in what is a quid pro quo response to Google doing pretty much the same thing to Microsoft a few years back. Google has taken a very liberal view with regard to copyrights and seems to think everyone else’s intellectual property should be made available to the world and in a related fashion Google has taken a rather hypocritical view of privacy which has a variety of government bodies looking at them in a hostile fashion across the world. What is hypocritical is that they have a very firm view that their executive’s personal information should be very private while taking the opposite position with regard to everyone else’s privacy.
As a result Google has been forced to take a far more active role in lobbying and politics. Their PAC is one of the biggest and may be the most powerful in technology, Eric Schmidt is tied to President Obama closely, and I’ve been told they have joked about being able to assure Obama’s win. Clearly others are becoming concerned that we are being actively manipulated. If true this is an impressive amount of political clout in for any company, however, I doubt they could move voting behavior more than two percent just by making certain videos and news that is negative on Romney more easily go viral or assuring some of the more obscure mistakes that happen in any campaign lose their obscurity.
The Likely Google Mistake
However, at their core Google is still an engineering firm and politics isn’t very close to engineering at all. In addition young companies in particular don’t think strategically nor are they good at assessing risks. This means it likely would have never occurred to them that there was a reasonable chance that if they got the politician they liked least to win the primaries that his loss against Obama was not assured because any candidate can make mistakes and execution has been a serious problem for the current administration.
Now as the polls shift to Romney the realization that Google may have assured his win may cause them to panic and make their involvement even more visible and were that to become common knowledge and appear to voters like Google was buying the election it could benefit Romney massively. In this scenario the Romney win would have been orchestrated by Google by accident.
Power CorruptsThe fact that none of this appears to be illegal is what currently concerns me because even if this isn’t happening this year it could certainly happen in the future if one company controls search results, what goes viral on YouTube, and can mine these massive repositories and rank the results (or email them) more effectively than anyone else can. Information is power and Google may be the most powerful company in the world, far more powerful than RCA, Standard Oil, or Microsoft ever were. The fact they could, by meddling, actually drive the opposite result to what they intended is something even they should be concerned about.
I’m not suggesting Google be broken up only that there should be more oversight and that when we do a search in politics on Google, or any site, that we might want to consider the fact that our free results do come with a price. That price may be our freedom from extreme manipulation. Of course it might be fun to be on the call the WTF call between President Obama and Chairman Schmidt, I wonder how many innovative ways Schmidt can say “whoops."
President and Principal Analyst, Enderle Group
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