What if the Google Index was Public? On Dr. Robert Epstein and the 'Separation of Powers' in Cyberspace

Published May 13th, 2020 - 01:18 GMT
Dr. Robert Epstein, Senate Judiciary Committee, July 2019 /CSPAN
Dr. Robert Epstein, Senate Judiciary Committee, July 2019 /CSPAN

While you may not be conscious of it, there is a good chance you have seen footage of Dr. Epstein’s appearance to the Senate Judiciary Committee, in July 2019, in which he argued that Google had the hypothetical power to influence an election by between 2.6 million to “upwards of 15 million votes” in favor a specific candidate or party in search rankings.

The testimony was widely shared on the Internet, with a coalition of conservative, libertarian and digital rights activists debating and engaging with the content of the findings. We were lucky enough to tune into a pre-release of a podcast discussion between Amy James, co-inventor of the Open Index Protocol, and Dr. Epstein.
 


As interesting as the Senate testimony is, it should also be read alongside an article published in July last year on the policy implications of making Google’s index a “public utility.”

In the article Epstein argues that breaking up “Big Tech” won’t work: “Breaking up Google’s search engine would give us a smattering of search engines that yield inferior results (the larger the search engine, the wider the range of results it can give you), and breaking up Facebook’s platform would be like building an immensely long Berlin Wall that would splinter millions of relationships.” 

"... breaking up Facebook’s platform would be like building an immensely long Berlin Wall that would splinter millions of relationships.” 

In short, breaking up 'Big Tech' won't protect users from the surveillance, content suppression and behavioural manipulation algorithms that Epstein and a growing collective of thinkers perceive to be surreptitiously taking over the Internet.

Today Google is used by around 2.5 billion people, indexing upwards of 45 billion page pages a day. That’s a global resource, and a significant degree of information control, for a single United States corporation. In 2018 a leaked video on influencing human values from a Google design lab, entitled the ‘Selfish Ledger.’ The video led to the kind of scrutiny that changes to search indexing, auto-suggestions, or invasive privacy customizations had somehow completely evaded.

Rather than singling out Google, a better conversation might be more education on just how influential many digital technologies are becoming; in particular, the temptations of vast data sets when concentrated and centralized in any single institution. For example, is there any reasons to believe governments, if provided with the same resources, would behave differently? For billions of people living in authoritarian countries, Silicon Valley's privacy laws are benign when compared to almost any currently existing alternative. 

Given the increasing saturation of technology into every elements of our lives, it might be time for the separation of powers we find in our democratic political systems, to be mirrored in cyberspace.


The Separation of Powers in Cyberspace

Given the increasing saturation of technology into every elements of our lives, it might be time for the separation of powers we find in our democratic political systems, to be mirrored in cyberspace. The alternative option is to vest massive informational, surveillance and broadcast power in the hands of the few; be it a corporation, governments, or any number of supranational institutions.

In the case of Internet search, Epstein argues that “—the mammoth and ever-growing database,” Google maintains should be transformed into a “public commons.”

If that sounds a little unfair, remember no one provided Google bots permission to ingest the world’s web pages into a mega-index, or delist websites in a way that can determine the success or failure of a business, and even influence stock markets

In the case of Internet search, Epstein argues that “—the mammoth and ever-growing database,” Google maintains should be transformed into a “public commons.”

This argument regards the Internet as a resource as necessary for existence as electricity, water, or telecommunications. A possible precedent would be the 1956 consent decree in the U.S., in which the massive telecoms carrier AT&T was obligated to share its patents with other companies, free of charge. Of course there are significant differences between a national telecoms carrier and a global information network.

While such a suggestion might enrage free-marketers, it could potentially spur innovation. The bloomberg article predicts that “variants would turn up within months; within a year or two, thousands of new search platforms might emerge, each with different strengths and weaknesses.” These platforms would evoke the index subset in different ways, creating new revenue models and niche offerings that are impossible in the current search context. The “alternative,” Epstein argues, “is frightening.”

Epstein’s arguments are part of what I would suggest is a growing chorus for the “separation of powers” in cyberspace. Alongside the technical policy prescriptions, it might be time to begin asking “What does freedom on the Internet actually look like?” How can ideas inherited from Franklin, Paine and the Enlightenment merge with this technical debate, to engineer a core internet architecture which remains free, distributed, yet still innovative?

 “what does freedom on the Internet actually look like?”

Above all, how do we go beyond “access” to ensure that cyberspace remains a place where anyone can build, speak and make money without having unfair competition and regulations imposed at every turn? Next week we’ll review the evolution of the early Internet, and the ideas of Lessig, Sir Tim Berners Lee, Barlow and others to find answers to these questions.

Full disclosure: Al Bawaba is experimenting with the Open Index Protocol. The views expressed in this article do not necessarily reflect those of Al Bawaba News.
 


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