Once upon a time, there was something called computer class. My fellow grade schoolers and I would sit at one of probably 20 computers in the school library and learn how to use the internet. It was a painfully slow process, since I'm pretty sure we were all dialing in Yahoo.com on the same dial-up modem. It was a world full of simple text pages and the occasional rotating coin, but now the world wide web has grown into a bustling online metropolis that seems to baffle quite a few folks in Washington.
Congress spoke with the Google's CEO Sundar Pichai recently, and some of the nation's legislators entered an electronic-age faux pas or two into the record but, of course, they're the ones in power and they're the ones concerned with political bias lurking in cyber space. More specifically, they're concerned major companies like Google are pushing a liberal bias through their search results.
For example, Rep. Zoe Lofgren, the Democrat representing California's 19th District, asked Pichai why photos of the president are the top image result when searching the word "idiot." In fact, she told him she just tried it before posing the question. Now, Pichai's response made sense to me, and seemed to make some sense to Lofgren, but I'm willing to bet it sounded like gobbledegook to many out there. So let me explain it using the very same search.
Go ahead, search "idiot."
What you get now (as evidenced by the screenshot above) is stories about Lofgren posing the question about the search. The search results are about search results. How existential. Now, that came to be within a matter of days, because the most recent, relevant and popular content involving the word "idiot" was no longer related directly to our president, but to Lofgren's question. Or, to put it another way, the most common online use of the word "idiot" two weeks ago was in reference to Donald Trump, but now the most common use is in reference to Lufgren's question about the word itself.
Ergo, her question is now a more frequently searched topic (side note, Trump's picture still pops up, but so do pictures of Einstein and the rock band Green Day if you scroll down a bit).
You see, it's we the people (man, I love working that phrase in) who are actually in control of what the mindless servers at Google dispense onto our screens. If you don't believe me type "if you are what you eat" into Google and wait for the suggested searches. You'll notice about the second result is "then Voldemort is a unicorn." I'll level with you, people aren't really searching that in earnest. They're entering it thousands of times to play with the system and send a joke your way courtesy of Google.
The young people call this a Google bomb (at least I think they still do).
This isn't a new trend. In 2005, Bill O'Reilly ticked off some folks and some tech savvy bloggers created posts with the text "terrorist sympathizer" and a link to O'Reilly's website. Enough of them did it, and pretty soon Google's ever-mindless system promoted O'Reilly's site to the top of the results list for that phrase. That same year, former U.K. Prime Minister Tony Blair got a Google bomb association with the word "liar." Pro-life activists got the Wikipedia page on abortion to be the top Google result for the word "murder." Before the new millennium, Microsoft's website rose to the top when searching "more evil than Satan himself." And, for some odd reason, then-presidential candidate John Kerry came up when searching the word "waffles."
Full disclosure, I did indeed Google "best Google bombs" to find that information.
So, it's pretty clear Google doesn't keep a tight grip on search results, nor should it. It's important to remember that Google results are popular results, not necessarily accurate and true results. That part is left up to us, the content creators — the public. Congress is worried there's a group of people affecting the outcome of search results, and the irony is that it's us, not the Google engineers. So, if Washington really aims to stop politicians from being the top result for the word "waffle," that means the feds are going to have to start monitoring the public's actions online.
Wait. That sounds familiar for some reason.
Of course, our first instinct is to have the company sort it out for Congress. We want the most reliable, factual, truthful stuff out there in the forefront, which feels like the right direction to go. But, if we instruct Google to weed out the bad information, we're asking for a private company to determine which information should be accessible. It makes one wonder if it's better to have the government regulate your free speech or let a private company have cart blanche in the free market.
If we demand our legislators regulate the internet like TV and radio broadcasts, then the Federal Communication Commission is going to have to walk back last year's decision to end laws that protected net neutrality laws for the internet — and mind you, that decision was made to spur innovation in a free market. As it stands, internet providers can scale back the connection to certain websites or content, and once again a business is potentially in control of the information we access.
Unfortunately, from where I'm sitting (in front of my desktop, by the way) it seems there's a rocky road at the intersection of free speech and free market in this scenario. If we truly want free speech on the internet, we're going to have to deal with Google bombs and all the crazy corners of the net. If we truly want someone to police the internet (a task my grade school computer class was told was nearly impossible even in 1996) we'd have to give a company or the government the power to decide which information is allowed to be shared. But, I'm sure the debate will go on. Congress will blame the tech companies, tech companies will try to explain the internet to the House and the Senate and all the while we'll still be working hard to add phrases like, "What would a chair look like if your knees bent the other way?" to the list of Google's suggested searches.