Still reeling from its losses up and down the ballot in November, the Democrat National Committee has appointed a “task force” to rebuild the party. This “audit,” which has become the normal reaction to staggering election losses, includes the normal roster of party strategists, elected officials and labor union allies. Interestingly, the task force also includes Eric Schmidt, Executive Chairman of Google, the online media giant. Schmidt’s role transforms him from a mere supporter of the Democrat party to a key architect of the party’s infrastructure. So the appointment raises serious questions about Google’s future role in politics.
After beginning life as an online search engine, Google is now the world’s largest media company. Last quarter, it posted almost $17 billion in revenue, with profits of almost $4 billion. These numbers dwarf all other media companies. Almost 70% of all internet searches are processed by Google, giving the company almost a monopoly position on directing traffic on the internet.
Google’s search function is based on a proprietary algorithm. This formula controls which sites result from a search and how they are ranked for the user. For most people, it acts as the primary gatekeeper for the internet, screening the sites the company deems most relevant to a user’s search. Several competitors have recently complained that Google searches were biased towards the company’s own content.
Schmidt’s decision to help the Democrat party rebuild its political infrastructure raises an entirely new category of potential search bias. A minor tweak to the company’s search engine could easily give preference to Democrat-allied sites on any policy issue. Now that the company boss has offered its expertise to an individual political party, any potential search bias shifts from being a hypothetical worry to a real possibility.
Google’s dominant market position is always going to increase public scrutiny of the company. With its leader becoming an openly partisan player in American politics, it invites a new level of scrutiny and transparency. It may not come as a surprise that the company has chosen to assist the political power that currently holds regulatory and rule-making authority over American business.
Before he begins his work to rebuild the Democrat party, Schmidt may want to look up the terms “monopoly,” “anti-trust,” “regulatory capture” and “creative destruction.” Perhaps he should use Bing or Yahoo!, though, just to ensure he gets the full picture.