The logo of Google, a unit of Alphabet Inc., sits on an Apple Inc. iPhone smartphone. (Photographer: Jason Alden/Bloomberg)

Trump Does Google a Big Favor

(Bloomberg Opinion) -- It’s easy to dismiss President Donald J. Trump’s condemnation of Google results — “rigged” against himself and other conservatives — as one more attempt to distract attention from the investigation by Special Counsel Robert Mueller, the felony conviction of Trump’s former campaign manager Paul A. Manafort, the guilty pleas of Trump’s former lawyer Michael Cohen, and (perhaps most ominously) the grant of immunity to the Trump Organization’s financial head, Allen Weisselberg. In this interpretation, Trump’s attack on Google is only the latest string of sausages he has dangled to throw pack journalists off the scent. Markets found Trump’s threat so weak that shares of Google’s parent company Alphabet rose more than 1.5 percent on the day after he made it.

Yet another side of Trump’s move is more disturbing for Google. It is his genius at turning progressive critiques of the Establishment to his advantage. It was liberal journalists of the 1980s and 1990s who challenged the objectivity of mainstream media, portraying them as tools of corporate interests. More recently, organizations such as the American Civil Liberties Union and books such as the mathematician Cathy O’Neil’s “Weapons of Math Destruction” have revealed disturbing biases baked into computer code, especially into artificial intelligence. Facial recognition programs, for example, have been shown to be significantly less accurate in recognizing blacks (especially women) than whites. The phrase “fake news” first appeared in the late 19th century but was popularized during and after the 2016 election campaign by generally liberal writers — until Donald Trump not only appropriated the expression but claimed to have invented it.

Long before Trump’s lawyer, former New York mayor Rudy Giuliani, stunned a television interviewer with the assertion that “truth isn’t truth,” academics in the history and philosophy of science were challenging most scientists’ view of the absoluteness of their results. More than 20 years ago, two traditional leftist scientists, the marine biologist Paul R. Gross and the mathematician Norman Levitt, condemned the cultural theories of science in their book “Higher Superstition.” Morerecently, the filmmaker Errol Morris has accused his former graduate teacher Thomas Kuhn (1922-1996), the influential author of “The Structure of Scientific Revolutions,” of proto-Trumpism in denying that old and new scientific worldviews could be compared. “I see a line,” Morris wrote, “from Kuhn to Karl Rove and Kellyanne Conway and Donald Trump.”

Thus, it’s no surprise that some of the first attacks on Google after the 2016 election came not from right-wing journalists but from the Guardian’s Olivia Solon and Sam Levin, arguing that Google’s “search and autocomplete algorithms prioritize sites with rightwing bias.”

Two factors make Google newly vulnerable to a broader political attack. More fundamentally, they also illuminate the need for Google to rethink its mission statement, which reads like a library school’s Hippocratic Oath: “Organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful.”

The first factor is what economists call the asymmetry of knowledge. Google (and Microsoft, Facebook, and Twitter) know much more about user behavior than do the public or academics, some of whom they have hired away from open scholarship. If these tech giants published search algorithms, corporations and political organizations would game them even more mercilessly than they have. Originally, Google was based on an algorithm ranking sites according to how many other sites linked to them. Unlike human-curated search engines like Yahoo, Google’s algorithm exploited the links of the web to let it organize its own information.

Today’s search is far more complex. According to Google, its engineers modified its algorithm 2,400 times last year, which works out to a change about once an hour every business day. Ten thousand human raters assign scores based on “freshness, relevancy and authoritativeness,” and the latter can include recognition like Pulitzer Prizes. While there’s no evidence of a conspiracy to suppress pro-Trump or pro-Republican news, unconscious prejudice may be a real issue. Or the bias may be, as Alexis Madrigal has suggested in the Atlantic, in favor of well-funded international news sources and against opinion-oriented sites, left as well as right. But such justifications will hardly mollify Trumpian foes of mainstream media.

The second factor undermining the search engine’s stated reason for being is its shifting response to the commercial challenge presented by China. Google is reported to be developing a variant called Dragonfly that will satisfy Chinese government censorship and surveillance regulations. While details aren’t yet known, at least one Chinese dissident in exile, Chen Guangcheng, author of “The Barefoot Lawyer,” has pointed to Google’s long-time informal motto, “Don’t be evil,” and warned the company it may be “making a huge mistake.” While Google might seek to justify compromise in the cause of harm reduction, there is no way to avoid conflict with a key phrase in its mission statement: “universally accessible.” And a censored Google for China makes it difficult for the company to stand up to Trump as imperiled democracy’s bastion against rising authoritarianism.

We need to remember that Google began as an idealistic academic project of two Stanford graduate students with no plan for long-term financial sustainability. In the late 1990s the founders, Larry Page and Sergey Brin, were willing to sell their infant company to Yahoo for $1 million so they could return to their academic studies. Yahoo rejected the offer, and balked at another for $5 billion in 2002. Today, Alphabet has a market capitalization of about $875 billion with a mission statement, name and logo still recalling its youth. Indeed, despite Page admitting in 2014 that Google needed a new mission statement, what its founders instead gave it was a new corporate identity.

In that respect, Donald Trump may have done Alphabet a favor. His constitutionally doubtful threat should be a wake-up call. Google has done little to dispel the illusion that its results are somehow uniquely reliable — to the dismay of high school and college teachers. A now-mature corporation must either return to its mission statement or define a new one. 

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Edward Tenner is a visiting scholar in the Rutgers department of history and author, most recently, of "The Efficiency Paradox: What Big Data Can't Do."

©2018 Bloomberg L.P.