Google dominance and the power of framing

Last week the US Federal Trade Commission announced the results of its 19 month investigation into Google, concluding that the company had not violated antitrust laws in the algorithms used to arrange its web search results. Google’s competitors, led in large part by Microsoft, accused the company of unfairly promoting its own products and services through its search engine (“search bias”).

The rationale given by Google, and accepted by the FTC stated that Google algorithms are simply part of the company’s innovation to meet consumer needs and improve its products and services. Google further stated that government regulation significantly impairs innovation in the rapidly-changing field of technology. Nevertheless, Google will make some changes to its policies, including its broad patents on cellphone technology, and its use of competing website content and user rating for other Google services, such as Google Shopping. While not a complete victory for Google, this ruling could signal a strengthening of the company’s position – not only in the online services market, but in its mission to provide the framework by which the world’s information is organised.

Indeed, while some have hailed the FTC’s ruling as protecting freedom of speech and the press, others have expressed concern over the impact of Google on freedom of thought. As Michael Gurstein describes:

“If we choose to accept Google’s ambition at face value; and if our information seeking behaviour is in correspondence with Google’s ambitions; then the primary lens through which we pursue our knowledge, understanding, justified belief about the nature of the world (or at least that which can be accommodated within a digitized Internet enabled framework) is through Google’s algorithm.”

The important point here is not whether Google is currently abusing its power as a primary lens for the pursuit of knowledge, but rather the simple fact that it indeed holds such power, and the continued need to hold that power accountable.

This puts ICT4D and internet governance actors in a precarious position. While Google has made substantial contributions to improving internet access and development, and often funds civil society participation from developing countries in internet governance fora, private corporations are “not our friends”. Following the WCIT negotiations in December, Michael Gurstein wrote critically of current internet governance power dynamics, expressing strong disappointment with civil society, which despite being crowned the winner of the ITR negotations, has not been adequately critical of existing and future internet regimes.

Aside from calling for more values-based analysis of internet governance, Gurstein encouraged civil society to “[..] shift from its current pre-occupation with the issues of the North–privacy, freedom of expression, even human rights towards a balance with issues of more immediate interest in the South–digital inclusion/Internet access and use, distribution of the economic benefits of the Internet, local languages and cultures and so on..”

While I agree with Gurstein’s emphasis on the Global South, I do not understand the need to drop human rights discourse in order to address issues like digital inclusion, access, economic empowerment, language and cultural diversity, which for many APC members, are very much human rights issues. In a global environment where many countries are only beginning to develop specific laws for online activity, it is imperative that civil society be actively engaged in developing the frameworks for that legislation. Using human rights, including economic, social, cultural and political rights, as a framing point is relevant not just for telecommunication regulation, but, in any activity where Governments take a regulatory role.

A framing based on human rights does not guarantee that regulation governing online activity will promote digital inclusion, language diversity, economic and social justice. Indeed, in many contexts powerful actors have co-opted the language of human rights to do just the opposite. Even where actors have taken a human rights approach to the internet, the balancing and interpretation of those rights differs greatly in various contexts, and often does not align with Western values. These variations in interpretation are not a weakness, but rather a potential strength. Much criticism has been aimed at the non-universality of human rights, and insufficient framing based on local culture and values. While the UDHR, ICCPR and ICESCR provide essential framing for protecting and promoting human rights online, it is local policy spaces and the actors within them that ultimately shape governance. Human rights frameworks may be powerful, but they are not more powerful than the collective action of those who use them.

Google’s emerging role as cataloguer of the world’s information is worthy of serious discussion, not only in terms of freedom of expression and thought, but also in terms of the power we give to the frameworks that govern our pursuit of knowledge, social justice, and equality.