I should get something out of the way first: The oxygen that fills Steve King’s lungs would be better used fueling a tire fire. King, who represent’s Iowa’s 4th District in the House of Representatives is a reprehensible excuse for a human being and every moment of every day that he holds public office is a testament to term limits and the benefits of sortition over elections. Steve King is so racist (how racist is he?!) the Republican House election fund refused to give money to his last re-election bid citing his “words and actions” on white supremacy. All that being said, King is right to be skeptical of Google CEO Sundar Pichai’s claim that their search algorithm is merely a neutral reflection of the user’s interests.
Pichai was grilled for three hours on Tuesday by House reps who wanted to know more about Google’s data collection practices, its monopolistic tendencies, and the company’s rumored censored Chinese search engine. The inherent contradiction that stands between these latter two issues is interesting: having thoroughly captured the search market nearly everywhere else, Google must —if it is to continue to appease investor’s demands for infinite profit growth— do everything in its power to breach the Chinese market. China is doing what most powerful nations do in their rise to power: protect and favor their own companies and reinvest as much wealth as possible within the country. These protectionist policies mirror what Britain and the United States did in their own respective eras of rising dominance. They fostered companies like Google so that they might attain global dominance and, by extension, solidify their influence on the world. But now that Google is a global company with interests that exceed the American market, the company’s goals are beginning to run counter to national interests. Like Frankenstein’s monster, Google has exceeded the wide boundaries federal regulators put up and now, in its search for new markets, has both too much power at home and is working with a rival power abroad. It is just the kind of capitalist contradiction that Marx and Keynes would predict: the infinite growth of firms and markets eventually undermines the very power of those that establish them.
But it is the media’s reaction to Republicans’ demand for more transparency that deserves attention. Tom McKay at Gizmodo, for example, wrote that much of the meeting entailed,
blaming an insidious liberal conspiracy for bad press popping up on Google. Ohio Representative Steve Chabot complained that Google search results on GOP efforts to repeal the Affordable Care Act [were critical of their efforts] and Texas Representative Louie Gohmert insisted that Pichai is so surrounded by people “so surrounded by liberality that hates conservatism” that he’s “like a blind man who doesn’t even know what light looks like.”
Steve King went the furthest, demanding that the company reveal which employees work on search, show their respective social media profiles, and publish how their proprietary algorithm works. He suggested that without this knowledge, there was no way to know whether Google was being “neutral” in their work and threatened anti-trust litigation if they didn’t comply. Much of the talk about search results was a proxy to talk about news coverage. Republicans complaining about the liberal bias in news is nothing new and we should recognize these statements as nothing more than reestablishing that rhetorical beachhead within a new media ecosystem.
And yet something bothers me. If, say, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez was grilling Pichai about their racist search results while waving a copy of Safiya Umoja Noble’s Algorithms of Oppression I would be dancing in my chair. If any congressperson would hold Zuckerberg’s feet to the fire over a 2015 patent for letting banks consider your Facebook friends when applying for a loan I’d grab the pop corn. King is right that it is the government’s job to demand companies be transparent about the products that influence our lives. I am not interested in private employers having the power to snoop around in, let alone publicize, their employees’ social media profiles but he is also right that human bias does make its way into our technologies. The issue here though, is not that these companies are unfair to Republicans, it’s that there is no outside oversight whatsoever when it comes to search and online reputation management.
Almost a year ago I published a piece in The Baffler that warned of the authoritarian tendencies of engineers and the fact that most tech workers are registered Democrats should do nothing to dispel anyone of the notion that things are getting better. After all, it was under Obama’s presidency that the drone war kicked into high gear and mass digital surveillance became the norm. The kinds of questions King is asking —Who makes these technologies? What are their goals? How will this new technology impact democracy?— are exactly the kinds of questions a government should ask. The fact that the government is run by white supremacists and they’re the ones doing the questioning, is really only half the problem. The other half is that the structure of government itself is not equipped to handle these questions in a substantive way. Punishing companies because they create and promote bad press for powerful politicians is easy. What’s hard is building the necessary infrastructure for a just and sane democracy in the digital age. There are very few watchdog agencies set up to defend individuals from predatory data collection, we don’t have a robust legal framework that says you have the right to know how your credit score is calculated. It is one thing thing to shout down a CEO who oversees bad corporate behavior, it’s another to follow that up with actual legislation. I’m cautiously optimistic about this new class of congressional representatives though, who have the energy and moral capacity to get this done.