Recently, Peter Thiel, one of big tech’s few prominent conservative-libertarians, began gunning for Google. The billionaire PayPal founder recently gave a speech in D.C. branding the tech giant “treasonous” and calling for a criminal investigation over its work with the Chinese military.
Thiel is not alone — Google’s list of prominent critics is growing. It includes President Donald Trump, who Thiel supported in 2016. It includes large sections of the conservative movement, who have witnessed the company’s efforts to suppress and censor non-progressive viewpoints over the past two years — thanks in large part to leaks published by Breitbart News. It also includes Google’s numerous competitors, who have long accused the company of anti-competitive practices.
But what would taking down Google actually look like? Beyond criminal investigations for treason, how does one cut a company whose revenue and influence outstrips many national governments down to size?
Here are a few of the best ideas.
1. Make Google’s search index public
“The alternative is frightening,” writes Epstein. “If Google retains its monopoly on search, or even if a government steps in and makes Google a public utility, the obscene power to decide what information humanity can see and how that information should be ordered will remain in the hands of a single authority.”
2. Separate Google from its data
The other major advantage of Google is its vast bank of data on everyone who uses its products (which in effect means virtually everyone on the Internet). Because of this user data, Google is able to personalize its services to a frightening degree — we’re now used to our smartphones reminding us how long it will take us to reach a particular destination, even when we didn’t ask it to. In the heydey of Silicon Valley, when Google and other tech companies still enjoyed a positive public image, the company openly boasted of its plans to deliver answers to user questions before they even ask them — in other words, Google wants to know you so well that it predicts your needs and desires ahead of time.
Google is the only search engine that can pull this off, because of the vast amount of information it holds on our search patterns — and by extension, our interests, our likes, our dislikes. Google knows what we’re interested in and when we’re interested in it. Other search engines don’t have an 80-plus percent market share on search, as well as dominant market shares in smartphone operating systems and web browsers, and thus don’t have Google’s ability to harvest all that data. It’s therefore impossible for any competing search engine to match Google’s level of personalization — and thanks to Google’s market-dominating position, there’s no way for them to catch up.
Google even admits it. “We don’t have better algorithms than anyone else,” says Peter Norvig, chief scientist at Google. “We just have more data.”
Former Google employee Bob Purvy published a thought experiment to tackle this problem — what if Google’s vast bank of data was available (anonymized, of course) to all its competitors? The privacy concerns are obvious, but if we trust a company as notoriously dishonest as Google with our data, why wouldn’t we extend that privilege to competing search engines that can make similar commitments? One thing’s for sure — making Google’s data accessible to its competitors, especially if combined with Dr. Epstein’s proposal to make its search index public, would destroy the very foundation of the tech giant’s market dominance.
3. Lawsuits, lawsuits, lawsuits
A well-placed lawsuit can topple seemingly mighty organizations. Just look at Gawker Media. After the then-notorious network of gossip blogs outed Peter Thiel as gay in 2007, the billionaire threw his weight behind Hulk Hogan’s lawsuit against the media outlet for the publication of a sex tape featuring the wrestler, financing Hogan’s case to the tune of $10 million. Hogan was eventually awarded $140 million by a Florida jury, a sum that left Gawker financially crippled.
Google is a far more powerful foe than Gawker, and is unlikely to be brought down by any one lawsuit — but that doesn’t mean they can’t do damage. The class-action lawsuit spurred by the company’s dismissal of software engineer and viewpoint diversity advocate James Damore in 2017 was recently allowed to proceed to discovery. As a result, Google’s internal communications are now open to the plaintiffs — a disaster-in-waiting for the tech giant, which has already fallen prey to repeated, damaging leaks revealing its political biases and oppressive working environment.
Lawsuits like Damore’s, properly funded, can wreak havoc on a company like Google. The legal costs are a drop in the bucket for the tech giant, but the public humiliation as details of the company’s cult-like working environment are brought into the open are far more damaging. The Damore lawsuit has already revealed Google’s tolerance of the extremist Antifa movement, widespread racism and sexism towards certain employees, and its Stasi-like attitude to non-progressive employees at the company.
The longer it and other cases like it drag on, the more embarrassing it will be for Google. The tech giant may be able to withstand the financial pain from fighting the case, but the damage to its reputation is far harder to repair.
4. Section 230 reform
Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act is the golden government handout that has allowed online companies like Google to prosper (the fact that big tech’s prosperity depends on a special perk from the government is a fact that many “free market” defenders of the tech giants like to ignore). Put simply, Section 230 grants online platforms immunity from lawsuits arising from user-generated content. If someone on Google-owned YouTube defames someone else, Google can’t be sued for it. Without this protection, tech companies would quickly fall victim to thousands upon thousands of lawsuits related to the content posted by their users. In other words, big tech needs the protection of Section 230 for its business model to survive.
But there’s another aspect of the law — tech companies are also immune from most lawsuits related to the removal of user-generated content. This is far harder to justify — a landlord usually has to obtain a court order before evicting a tenant, yet tech platforms like Google can evict you from their digital property at any time, for any reason, and face no legal consequences — regardless of how much time, money, and effort you’ve invested on the platform. This is far harder to justify.
Given the double standards involved, it’s no wonder that Republican senators like Ted Cruz and Josh Hawley are fixated on Section 230 reform. Their offer is simple — if tech companies want to keep their Section 230 protections, a privilege that no other private enterprise enjoys, it ought to come with some obligations. Chief among them, political neutrality in the enforcement of their policies.
5. Demand a Pro-America Pledge
Bipartisanship is a rare thing these days, but both parties agree that Google should not be appeasing the Chinese government. When news leaked that Google was preparing a censored search app for the Chinese market, Democrat and Republican politicians joined forces to demand the company back down, which it eventually did.
More can be done with this bipartisan consensus. Republicans and Democrats should demand Google make a “pro-America pledge,” a commitment not to censor on behalf of foreign governments, work with foreign military groups, or assist in foreign government’s oppression of their own people.
The need for such a pledge is pressing — last year, Breitbart News leaked “The Good Censor,” an internal document from Google revealing that the number of requests for content removal from foreign governments has skyrocketed. The document also suggested that Google is moving away from an emphasis on the “American tradition,” which emphasizes free speech, and towards a “European tradition,” which favors “civility over freedom.” The document also noted that the company’s global expansion is now tied to appeasing foreign governments. The solution is simple —American lawmakers should demand American companies promote American values.
6. Go local
Section 230 reform is a good goal, but it faces severe obstacles on Capitol Hill. First, there’s a Democrat majority in the House, which is sure to block any measure aimed at reducing big tech censorship. Second, there are plenty of establishment Republicans who may block such measures too. Just listen to Sen. Marco Rubio praising Facebook for removing “hate speech.”
Don’t despair — if Washington D.C. is a brick wall, state legislatures may prove to be an open door. As corporate intolerance of conservative values has grown over the past few years, red states in particular have been far quicker to act than their Capitol Hill counterparts. Last year, Republican legislators in Georgia erased a lucrative tax break for Delta Airlines after it cut ties with the National Rifles Association. More recently, Texas Governor Greg Abbott signed a law (dubbed “the Chick-fil-A” bill) that protects companies from discrimination on the basis of their support for faith-based organizations. State attorneys general like Jeff Landry are also making moves against big tech.
As the politicization of corporate America — Silicon Valley included — escalates, red states are rising to meet the challenge. Anyone looking to dissuade Google and other tech giants from anti-American activities should look to Austin, Atlanta, and Montgomery as well as Washington D.C.
7. Incentivize leaks
All leaks are embarrassments, but some are utter humiliations — and I imagine that being called before the Senate Judiciary Committee to answer for them is about as humiliating as it gets. Watching politicians grill company executives is the sort of thing that makes Google’s investors nervous — and the more leaks Google springs, and the more grilling it receives, the more nervous they’ll get.
It’s a frightening endeavor to leak from any large corporation, but doubly so if the corporation specializes in tracking people’s behavior and communications with pinpoint accuracy. Whether the story is about Google’s links to China, political bias, privacy abuses, or manipulation of its search results any employee who is caught leaking information from within the company will quickly need to find a new job. If the leaker is found to have conservative sympathies, they’re also likely to face industry-wide blacklisting. Under such conditions, it’s a mark of their exceptional courage that so many Google whistleblowers have come forward.
Anything that can be done to make the process less risky for them should be done. If the underground networks of whistleblowers in Silicon Valley knew that in the event of detection and ostracization by Google, they could still access opportunities for employment in conservative-tolerant companies, it would go a long way to encourage further leaks. Call it the Rivendell project — a refuge from the Eye of Sauron.
8. Real Net Neutrality
“Net Neutrality” as it existed in the Obama administration was really just a way for streaming companies like Netflix and YouTube to enjoy equal access to Internet service providers, despite the fact that they require far more bandwidth to operate. It had very little to do with preserving an open, uncensored internet, which is how supporters of the measure presented it — it only applied to service providers, who are not in the business of censorship anyway.
But Google, Facebook, and other “edge providers” (the technical term for websites and apps that exist on the internet) certainly are in the business of censorship. As FCC chairman Ajit Pai said when he reversed Obama-era Net Neutrality rules, “edge providers are a much bigger actual threat to an open Internet than broadband providers, especially when it comes to discrimination on the basis of viewpoint.” The rules of Net Neutrality, applied to the edge providers rather than the service providers, would force companies like Google to become common carriers, prohibited from censoring lawful content.
As Alinsky said, hold your enemies to their own book of rules. They want a “neutral” internet? Let’s give them a really neutral internet!
Are you a source at YouTube or any other corporation who wants to confidentially blow the whistle on wrongdoing or political bias at your company? Reach out to Allum Bokhari securely at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Allum Bokhari is the senior technology correspondent at Breitbart News.