Yesterday, a German court ruled that Google had to delete negative search terms that came up in association with people’s names in the search engine’s auto-complete function. If the word “arsehole” kept on coming up in searches of “Seymour Gris” because so many people had already put in that search request, I would now be able to force Google (in Germany at least) to remove that auto-completion. In the case heard by the court, a cosmetics company suceeded in getting the words “Scientology” and “fraud” removed from the Google auto-completion associated with its name.
It’s not a trivial victory. How many times a day do you find yourself typing something into the search box and just depending on “auto-complete” to provide the “answer” (if you can call it that)? Every day the monopolistic Google has more control over our reputations, our businesses, our knowledge, our decisions and our very perception of reality.
How do we deal with this huge concentration of power on the long term? My suggestion: nationalise Google!
The German government should seize Google’s German servers and give control of them to a non-profit organisation similar to the BBC. A board of independent experts working under full transparency could be appointed to ensure that Google searches are neutral and fair; they could give individuals the right to remove libelous and slanderous content; at the same time, measures would be implemented to fully protect the privacy of individuals and ensure that the search engine works in the public interest and nothing else. In short, the search behemoth would be transformed into a public utility paid for by your monthly TV fees – most people I know would rather pay a small fee for a highly effective search engine than for most of the crap you see on TV here. With 80 percent of the German search market in its grip, Google is simply too powerful to remain in private hands!
Okay, by now you’re probably screaming “censor!” or “communist idiot!”. Don’t worry, nationalisation of Google isn’t going to happen any time soon. First, it’s technically impossible to take control of Google’s services in just one country – its technologies obviously operate seamlessly across borders. Second, Germany wouldn’t dare mess with trade agreements with the US – which clearly prohibit nationalisation of foreign-owned assets.
Despite the huge hurdles to such a move, I believe things could look very differently within a decade or two. A couple of years ago I wrote a short play that took the logic of Google to its logical conclusion. The scenario is a not-too-distant dystopia in which artificial intelligence and automation have triggered permanent mass unemployment. This coincides with an environmental collapse resulting in food shortages. The ubiquitous Google starts offering “users” free food as the ultimate Google service, and the ultimate way to totally dominate their lives by “giving” them something for free – not unlike what it does now.
Of course, when nationalisation does get onto the agenda – one day it will, I am sure – the internet industry will scream about “freedom” and “innovation”. To which I answer: “Whose freedom? Whose innovation?” The gillionaires of Silicon Valley (or Allee)? In the early 20th century, most developed states around the world took control of the airwaves and formed esteemed institutions such as the BBC. Something similar needs to happen with the internet.