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Why Google Poses a Serious Threat to Democracy, and How to End That Threat [pdf] (senate.gov)
115 points by sprucely 24 days ago | hide | past | web | favorite | 129 comments



Dr. Robert Epstein might very well have a valid complaint, but it seems like he has had an ax to grind with Google going back years. His site was hacked in 2012 and Google put up a warning as a result and he was not happy about it [1]. Maybe coincidentally, later that year Epstein started publicly criticizing Google and calling for them to be regulated [2]. He also started sounding the alarm about election interference years before the 2016 election [3]. If Dr Epstein is leading a conversation about Google's biases, I think it is only fair to also discuss whether Dr Epstein's himself is biased against Google.

[1] - https://bits.blogs.nytimes.com/2012/01/06/readers-and-expert...

[2] - https://www.huffpost.com/entry/google-privacy_b_1962827

[3] - https://www.theguardian.com/technology/2014/may/15/google-di...


Does Dr. Epstein stake any of his claims on his personal credibility in his article? Why not attack the substance of the article instead of going with the the classic "slander the opposition" play that all kinds of disingenuous actors regularly employ? This post sounds like something I used to hear from Lance Armstrong's camp or from authoritarian propaganda.

For all I know you're part of a FUD campaign from Google. Dr. Epstein's paper may well be nonsense for all I know but this post adds nothing to the discussion.


>Does Dr. Epstein stake any of his claims on his personal credibility in his article?

Yes, he clearly does. Why else would he spend most of the first three paragraphs detailing his credentials if he didn't think they would lend himself credibility? Which do you think is more relevant to the current discussion, the degree he earned from Harvard nearly 40 years ago or the event that seemingly got him interested in Google's "censorship" in 2012 and kicked off his research?

>Why not attack the substance of the article instead of going with the the classic "slander the opposition" play that all kinds of disingenuous actors regularly employ?

A large part of the substance rests on the idea that Google is biased. Not that they are falsifying the facts, that they are displaying facts in such a way as to intentionally manipulate the behavior of the people reading those facts. How is it off the table to mirror the same question back to Epstein and ask whether maybe he has biases that have caused him (perhaps even subconsciously) to gather and present the facts in such a way as to show his intended result?

This testimony isn't an apolitical peer reviewed scientific paper. It is a plea in front of the US Senate for political action. I think it is fair to ask the motivation behind that political action and whether Epstein put the cart before the horse in his research. However, I will be the first to admit that doesn't necessarily invalidate his arguments. I pointed that out in the first sentence of my first comment.

>For all I know you're part of a FUD campaign from Google.

I hope the irony in this accusation was intentional.


The entire basis of his testimony is his personal credibility. He literally only references his own research and the core evidence he relies on is his research findings. Some of which looks questionable to my not-very-knowledgeable eyes, so it's very useful to know about Epstein's past relationship with Google.

Lines that stand out are:

- "Google has likely been determining the outcomes of upwards of 25 percent of the national elections worldwide since at least 2015"

- "In the weeks leading up to the 2018 election, bias in Google’s search results may have shifted upwards of 78.2 million votes" (that would be 70% of the 113 million people who voted in the election)

- "Google’s “Go Vote” prompt was not a public service; it was a vote manipulation"

- "To let Big Tech companies get away with invisible manipulation on this scale would be to abandon the free-and-fair election. It would make democracy meaningless, even if your chosen candidate prevailed."


>"In the weeks leading up to the 2018 election, bias in Google’s search results may have shifted upwards of 78.2 million votes" (that would be 70% of the 113 million people who voted in the election)

You are misinterpreting what he is saying there. That same thing tripped me up too on first glance because the 78.2 million number seemed ridiculously high. He is referring to votes and not people who voted. If there were 10 items on your ballet and he thinks Google may have influence you, he is counting that as 10 votes and not 1 person voting. There is nothing technically wrong with displaying the number that way, but it seems so misleading that it makes me question if it was intentionally chosen to make the problem sound worse. It is decisions like that which make me doubt his neutrality in presenting the data.


You're right, thanks for clarifying.

I agree - it doesn't feel like the most honest way to represent that data and I doubt that subtlety came through in his testimony for congress.


A bad experience with an entity is a legitimate reason to form a bias against them; indeed, that's the point. The nature of the threat that Google poses is likely to leak into many activities inviting criticism.


In general, yes. For warning the public about your hacked site feeding malware to visitors, no, we can evaluate that directly and see that it is not a valid basis for a grudge.


as someone that is right now locked out of their work email account because google aren't able to fingerprint my browser, and are demanding a telephone number to restore access til I get to the office again

and who has been locked out on holidays multiple time in the last 2 years with similar effect, only that an SMS would not reach me...

these are not the only shitty things in my existence brought by google.

perhaps then, the author is entitled to have a grudge for another reason.

futhermore:

if grudges are so bad, then the opposite: what of endless cheerleading for the status quo - are motives there also questionable?


Bias may exist but it is only relevant on non-factual opinions or factual opinions that can't be independently reproduced or verified.


And a lot of Epstein's research cannot be independently verified.


He can be biased as well as having a good point :-) However, I think there is more to be said here. In the past, the companies that most controlled public opinion were media companies. Could we not make the same argument that Rupert Murdoch is a danger to democracy? Or for that matter could we include companies like MSNBC who have been shown in studies to favour certain political personalities? CNN? Fox News?

Historically can we complain that newspapers controlled personal opinion? Even now, we famously have a political figure criticising a news paper for it's less than favourable coverage ;-). But in seriousness, how much has democracy been eroded by the ability of large corporations to send pretty much any message they wish unchecked?

We could certainly argue that Google has a longer reach and a considerable higher degree of ability to actually extract data about the population. But why single out Google? Facebook is still around ;-) Surely we need to be concerned not just about a single entity, but a class of "attacks" against democracy -- many of which we have tolerated in the past. Perhaps we technology is getting to the point where it's a big problem. Or perhaps it's been a big problem for a long time and we haven't really realised (since the arrival of radio and TV or perhaps even the advent of ubiquitous literacy, widespread newspapers).

So, I appreciate the point that pointing the microscope at Google is probably misguided, but I think we need to be more and more cautious about how the dissemination of information allows small numbers of people to effectively measure and control public opinion.


The second "part" to his huffpost article is re-telling the story from the first nytimes article from his perspective - it was eventually solved via removing "20 crafty lines from a config file".

Interestingly, if I go to his site now, it's ran on PHP 5.6.40 (not supported[0]) and is on Joomla 3.6.2, current Joomla is 3.9.5.

0: https://www.php.net/supported-versions.php


His biases are interesting but what really matters is the data. Either his empirical findings are correct or they are incorrect.


Caveat lector. His empirical findings include the claim that because Google knows its users trend liberal (simple demographics would tell you that, without any intrusive analytics), it is unfair of Google to run universal "go vote" PSAs on its site, because doing so will favor the Democrats.

Here's an article he wrote on The Epoch Times, which I believe is cited in the section about how Google is running GOTV for the Democrats:

https://www.theepochtimes.com/another-way-google-manipulates...


Amen. When the first counter-argument is an assassination of the author's character-- we have a problem! The statements in the PDF are in the public interest. Debate them, don't simply make an ad homenim attack against the speaker.


And when Epstein loses the debate and continues to just make up wild accusations? Debate only functions if it ends.


You'd imagine a professor in Psychology from Harvard would not hold a grudge for seven years over Google warning users about his hacked website and "tarnishing" his reputation. Apparently not.


Some random dude on hackernews claims that Epstein's motivation is based on a 7 year grudge, and you just believe it.


Had you done a quick search you'd find his Wikipedia page along with several references.


> would not hold a grudge for seven years ...

Why not?

He had a poor experience with them some time ago, and Googles behaviour in the last 7 years has been abysmal and seems to be getting far worse. eg likely re-inforcing his opinion.

Not really seeing why he'd "forgive" an entity with those circumstances.

If Google had instead changed for the better, maybe you'd have a point. :)


You're just talking in abstract terms. Let's be grounded in facts. His initial "poor experience" was that his website was hacked in 2012 and Google warned its users about visiting it.


> You're just talking in abstract terms.

Sure. But you are too. You seem surprised someone would hold a grudge for 7 years against a bad actor.

Personally, I don't find it surprising at all.


Do you have a file on Epstein or something? The first ten Google results for me don’t include those links.


The first line of his testimony mentions working at the American Institute for Behavioral Research and Technology. Knowing how congressional testimonies tend to work, I Googled that to see if was one of those politically motivated think tanks with an intentionally neutral sounding name. Robert Epstein's Wikipedia page was one of the top results. I clicked through and noticed that roughly half of the content of that page was under the header "Criticism of Google". The links I included all came from either the Wikipedia sources, Epstein's testimony, or a link from one of those. The whole thing took maybe 5 minutes and didn't require any research skills beyond simply being curious.


Claiming that Robert Epstein has an ax to grind sounds like you know him personally. Independent of that, it does seem like you spent thirty minutes of reading articles on the subject before you made that comment.

I am certain that 90% of the people who step into Congress are crooks, or at least have no honest opinion, so I would only use details of Epstein’s testimony to confirm existing biases.


He does have an ax to grind against Google; that's not really in dispute. It's not clear that he's sharpening his blade on this particular Senate testimony, but it's a reasonable question to ask, since he has no particular expertise in the topic.


I will equally say without any evidence that Epstein has forgiven Google, and is speaking out against Google for purely mercenary reasons.


The difference is that you're saying something without evidence, and I'm saying something for which pretty extensive evidence is on the record. Please note that I'm being careful about separating what I have evidence for --- Epstein's grudge against Google over the quarantining of his hacked website --- from what I don't --- his testimony before the Senate.


You are claiming that Epstein is a petty man, and has decided to devote his entire life towards smearing Google, although at this point it is for wages?

You disguise your rather strong claim with passive voice and a conclusion that doesn’t attempt to convince me at all.


I think if you read any other comment of mine in this thread, you will not see me saying that Epstein has "decided to devote his entire life towards smearing Google". I don't know what you mean by "a petty man" and further don't think it'd be productive to explore that. I'd appreciate it if you could try a little harder to respond to arguments I've actually made.


Okay, I will try harder, I suppose I owe that to you to understand your arguments and where you come from.

I was unclear, I meant that your arguments leave one with the inference that Epstein would dedicate the remainder of his life against Google. I mean petty man as in man motivated by petty reasons.

I am unaware if you really meant to imply that or if you’ve been repeatedly communicating unclearly.


Once again, my argument is simple:

1. There is clear evidence that Epstein holds a grudge against Google based on the quarantine they put on his website.

2. It is not clear that this grudge determines his opinion about Google's influence on elections.

3. However, the grudge is relevant information in anyone's consideration of Epstein's opinions. Do with it what you will.


1. The evidence shows that Epstein was angered by Google’s actions, but there is no evidence of his present emotional state. I don’t know anyone who would be angry for seven years for an automated notation warning caution for their own website.

2. Yes, but it is not even clear he holds this opinion or is being paid to parrot viewpoints he is paid for.

3. No evidence there is a grudge, see my argument in item #1.


Let's again be clear that Google's "actions" here seem to sum up to:

1. Noticing that this guy's site was serving malware --- which Epstein was later forced to concede that it was.

2. Putting a warning on the search engine referral.


[flagged]


I don't think you'll find me making that argument in this thread either. Although: the malware warnings are clearly good.

It is a pretty obnoxious message board trope that anyone who disagrees with one's argument must be fully directionally committed to any "compatible" argument; it can't just be that your argument is bad, it must be that I'm defending Google because of an abiding affection for Google. Gross.


It's been prominently featured (and a subject of editor attention) on his Wikipedia page for over a year. It's not a secret.


Please explain how your comment isn't a case of ad-hominem.



This is such garbage. If you clickthrough on this guy's "research", you'll find that he objects to Google's "Go Vote Today" reminder is unfair politically because:

- It increases voter turnout across the board (which favors Democrats marginally) - Google users tend to be younger (and hence more left-leaning)

Google has many questionable practices, but simply reminding people when it is an election day is not one of them


What if Google used all the data they collected and used machine learning to show the voting reminder only to users who align ideologically with Google?

That’s a big what-if, of course. I’m not even sure if it would be violation of any privacy law because that’s not selling your data to 3rd-parties.


Even assuming Google is theoretically capable of showing the voting reminder only to users who would vote for a Democratic candidate doesn’t mean that they did that. Dr. Epstein doesn’t present any evidence (even anecdotal) that the reminders were not shown to Republicans.


Exactly! This is the interesting question to ask!

And you should expect this to take a much less straight forwards form than outright malicious intend.

Machine learning stuff, to us mere mortals, is a black box that seems to output that what we desire. However, we don't need a single black box to completely hide the effect from everyone involved. It can be simply spread out over many processes without anyone noticing the sum of countless, by themselves very sensible, pro-google decisions made by google and its employees.

Say on a fuzzy edge some human or automation has to decide if a website gets banned from the index or not. Since they use adsense or google analytics it becomes possible to contact someone running the site or even, long before the offense, present them with a machine generated report suggesting decline of quality.

The google hating webmaster doesn't want all that tracking crap on his site and therefore he might be punished by not having the warning in advance. It doesn't seem harmful, it seems perfectly reasonable, if however you create 1000 such effects the meaningless 0.1% adds up to 100%.

Say, we take a user profile that use to frequent sites now banned from the search index. If that profile moves to a new website. Does that merit close monitoring? If the AI is a black box you don't even get to ask the question.

It all seems to be fair and logical but the sum of those 2 would boil down to close monitoring websites not using analytics. We would praise the AI for noticing it so soon and so efficiently.

And so things further escalate without anyone connecting the dots.

To make it more sinister:

We have a system of pro-consumerism entities that collectively indoctrinates us to enjoy consumerism. We don't know how efficient or effective that system is. But all we need to know is that we can improve it.

How hard is it really to plant a seed, water it and eat the tomatoes? How hard is it to mix flour, yeast and water then shove it in the oven? It sure seems like an infinitely complex task to me, infinite as in: ill never do it. That apathy is great news for consumerism. Its behavior that deserves to be praised and rewarded by the entities benefiting from it. There is no evil man pulling levers behind a curtain. Its just the way things are.


Companies sponsor campaigns and publicly support politicians all the time. Personally I think campaign contributions should be way more limited, but I'm not sure what is special about Google here.


What if reddit did this? Or Amazon? Or literally any popular web site. Is this reason to break up all of them?


Imagine if a newspaper endorsed a candidate?


Except it would be more subtle. Google would not be telling you who to vote for because they already have an idea who you'll be voting for, based on machine learning results. If they think you would vote for someone disadvantageous to Google, they would not show the voting reminder.


It sounds a bit like this degree of subtlety:

https://i.imgur.com/OkVMmQi.jpg


It's more than a big what-if: it's also not something Epstein claims has happened.


To play devil's advocate: What role does a for-profit advertising company have in encouraging people to vote? And what are their motives in doing so?

Disclaimer: I haven't read the pdf (only responding to your comment) and don't really hold a strong position on this question, other than being sceptical of Google's participation in any political process.


So, I was the person who created the "where do i vote" for Google originally and ran it for years.

My motive was "Where do i vote" is basically the top query on Google on election day, and people would get crappy answers. In fact, it was actually Ginny's idea (she's very civic minded), and she needed an engineer to help, and I was the only engineer in the DC office.

So i said "how hard it could it be" (famous last words) and did it. 2 swe's in geo got dragged in along the way because they thought it was cool (eventually we just staffed a team on our own).

Michael geary, who is on HN somewhere, did all the JS.

Along the way, i spent my time and energy creating the voting information project (with pew charitable trusts), and open standards for sharing the data necessary to answer this question, after discovering what a proprietary crap hole basic civic data like this is.

So there you go, now you know the motives.

In fact, if you ask some of the early data partners (until i could get critical mass in opening the data), you will discover we were in fact the only ones they pretty much ever had who asked to have all personally identifying info, etc. stripped from data sources before they were given to us.

They found it quite funny, because this kind of data is actually a big business owned by large political operative companies that have tentacles in various states. The notion that someone didn't want to know the people associated with the address records was hilarious to them.

These databases are large lists of who lives where, their political affiliation, voting history, and various political districts they belong to.

We want addresses and districts only.


I would make a distinction between curating voting information and displaying it once a user searches for that kind of information versus running a "Go Vote" banner (google doodle) on the home search page without a user having made any inquiry on that subject. The latter is what is being complained about in point 2 (I've now looked at the pdf).


I wouldn't. Pretty much everywhere tries to get the vote out. Most workplaces send out email reminders, etc. Every single person in the US gets a card in the mail reminding them to vote.

Literally everyone is trying to remind people to vote. This is a good thing.

Anyone complaining about anyone trying to remind people to vote is just ridiculous.


It depends on whether you think everyone should be encouraged to vote or whether you think only people who are 'informed voters' should vote (people who have followed the political debate and are informed on policy positions, etc). The latter don't need to be encouraged; they are self-motivated.

Again, I'm not taking either position myself but those are two different political positions which exist. Google is choosing one and thus taking a political, pro-active stance.


> only people who are 'informed voters' should vote

That is not a valid position to have and thus doesn't need to be considered.

Voting is the best way to figure out how everyone feels on things. As annoying as it is party lines giving free passes to incumbents that is a problem better solved via other methods such as term limits.

Even if someone is going to vote opposite of me I would rather they express that opinion than have the vote not hear their voice.

The solution to uniformed voters is for people to become informed not avoid people going to the polls.


This particular question was answered at the founding of our country, and doesn't need to be answered again. Also - attempts to do so since have mostly been naked racism/sexism[1]

Calling it a "political, pro-active stance" is, well, ridiculous.

I guess you can try to label everything, but i don't think you are going to find a lot of support for your attempt.

[1] I'm speaking about poll taxes, poll tests, etc.


To devil's advocate your devil's advocacy: let's just assume Google is encouraging people to vote because they know that more democrats will see that message, that they want democrats to win, and that's the only reason for them doing so.

What is wrong with that, and how would you propose to fix it via a mechanism that didn't also e.g. outlaw FOX News?


Can FOX News (or any other media organization) do a campaign with the same impact as Google?

If they can, then this is just a random guy making things out of proportion and there's nothing useful there. If they can't, and Google can indeed change people's mind in a level unparalleled to any other organization, then you go looking for why and you either takes that power away, or makes sure it's available for everybody.


To play devil's advocate to your advocacy of the devil's advocate, what if Exxon or a right-leaning org offered discounts to people who "promise to vote Republican". Nothing binding, simply an unenforceable promise (gentleman's or lady's agreement) to vote for a party in exchange for a 20% discount on your fuel.


> what if Exxon or a right-leaning org offered discounts to people who "promise to vote Republican"

Vote selling is election fraud, which is a crime. Anyone who took those discounts would go to jail. Sounds fair to me.

I don't see how "Please vote" is remotely comparable to vote buying. Can you elaborate?


A better example would be what if Google gave out 'I Voted!' awards that, upon proof that you voted, gave you access to special Google features.


OK, I guess. But... they don't. So what's the argument here?


This is a fascinating rabbit hole to go down.

When you consider some of the recent decisions about what constitutes "speech," it raises the important question of whether a private company influencing its customers' voting preferences would actually be protected.

How much different is it for a company to use its speech to influence a politician directly (donations, lobbying, PACs, etc.) vs. stating its political opinions on its own private "property" potentially to influence politics indirectly?

In physical space, is it legal to:

* Have a sign promoting a social position in the window of your private store? ("Say no to drugs!") * Have a sign promoting a political position? ("Say no to the Iraq war!") * Have a sign promoting a candidate? ("I like Ike!") * Tell customers who to vote for? ("Have a nice day, vote for JFK!") * Tell only customers that "look a certain way" who to vote for? ("As someone in a wheelchair, you should vote for FDR!")

Now convert all this to the online world with banner ads, user targeting, and personalization. Isn't it just free speech at scale?


it's the scale that may tip the balance from voicing your opinion to mass-manipulation. i am not saying that online speech is mass-manipulation, but it has the potential to be, whereas the other has not. and because of this potential they need to be considered separately.

fwiw, an online "go vote" is not manipulation if it's not targeted even if the audience is an uneven demographic, but "i like ike" is. and while google search may have a younger demographic, they certainly don't intentionally limit that, since they want everyone to use google search.


They same role they have in offering free email, or a free calendar app. People wanted a vote-reminder application, so Google made one to increase engagement in its platform.

If for profit companies are Constitutionally allowed to make political donations, why would reminding people to vote be any different?


It's like changing a company's logo to a rainbow flag during pride month. It has basically zero cost and gains a minor increase in public perception as being a company that stands with "the people." (Telling people to vote has always been pretty popular, and I remember my friends sharing posts of their favourite celebrities telling people to vote.)


I dont think there is anything problematic in simply encouraging people to vote, even if you tend to reach certain groups better. A higher voter turnout should be something to strive for, its a sign for a healthier democracy. The current approach to discourage more voters of the opposite party to not go voting then your own get discouraged seems more then just a bit problematic.

Differently put, what harm is done by getting people to go vote when you are not influencing them to vote in a certain fashion? I would argue that only the opposite is problematic, to discourage people to vote.

Googles motivation shouldnt matter as long as they are not influencing who you are going to vote for.

But thats another topic on its own, I find it hard to argue why google should be singled out in a country where even news organizations endorse candidates. If they are to powerful dismember them instead of making a lex google.


> to discourage more voters of the opposite party to not go voting then your own

"Vote rigging" would be the term.


It's a good business practice because it's good branding.

Companies intentionally try to associate their brand with other things seen as positive -- pride month, the Olympics, the environment, promoting diversity, etc.

Google does this with their home-page doodles. Encouraging people to vote is another feel-good brand association.

There's nothing nefarious here like Google promoting a specific political agenda, that's overthinking it. It simply improves their brand image which makes people more likely to trust and use and promote their products. It's the profit motive at work... which, to answer your question, is why a for-profit advertising company does it.


It's a marketing opportunity to encourage people to use their services to find polling stations and other related info.


I agree. It's a Pandora's box I don't want to open.


We also allowed anyone to embed our voting location widget (it was open source too), which he missed


There is a serious and concerted effort to disparage the large tech companies lately on this platform and others. It isn't about anti-trust, or any benefit to the consumer either, although it may be dressed up that way. It's about forcing private companies to be platforms for radical views, and to self-censor and be disallowed from having their own political opinions and operating policies.

The government should be hands-off here. Look only to the fact that they're not investigating Microsoft, Walmart, or the ISPs, to realize that this is targeted political harassment.


How is this related to forcing private companies to be platforms for radical views?

Should the private gas company be forced to be platforms for radical views?


The accusation is that only private companies with platforms for speech are being targeted.


How is that an accusation? That's the whole point.


A prominent Republican once said: ‘if you’re not with us, you’re against us’. I get the impression that this is still their policy.


I see FAR more of that from Democrats than from Republicans these days. Far leftists call Tim Pool and Joe Rogan (both left-leaning centrists with some socialist views) supporters of the "alt right".


Rogan's personal opinions aren't what aggravate people. It is the people he chooses to have on his show that people complain about.


Can you provide some particularly egregious examples?

From what I've seen his guests seem to run the entire spectrum: martial artists, military veterans, comedians, physicists, journalists, etc. Sure he's had crackpot Alex Jones on, but he's also had Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey, Elon Musk, and Gary Johnson.


They aren't targeting all of the right wing websites or fox news either.


"On January 31, 2009, Google blocked access to virtually the entire internet for 40 minutes." - Please explain how Google created a denial of service attack on the entire internet for 40 minutes. Clearly, Dr. Epstein believes that the only way to access the internet is through a search engine.


BGP misconfiguration?


While his claim is false (they didn't take down the internet), Google would be the "only" [default] gateway to the internet for a large portion of users if it weren't for:

mobile app stores browsers auto-completing frequent websites (eg. searching for "apple" vs your browser auto-completing "apple.com").


> On Election Day in 2018, the “Go Vote” reminder Google displayed on its home page gave one political party between 800,000 and 4.6 million more votes than it gave the other party

Interesting. I assumed they displayed those for everyone. Did any whistleblowers come up saying how they decided who to show that and who to not show that message? Because if they only picked out voters they assumed would vote Democrat that would be troubling. Though, I guess it is tempting to say, they are using their resources however they see fit, but even then I'd at least hope they are transparent and clear were they stand, and not try to pretend to be unbiased.

> A growing body of evidence suggests that Google employees deliberately engineer ephemeral experiences to change people’s thinking.

Does anyone from Google here even knows about or heard the phrase "ephemeral experiences"? Search suggestions I guess could change people's opinions, but I am not sure about the deliberate manipulation part, and that it's concerted internal effort.


Google did show it to everyone. If you follow the link and read his "analysis", his argument boils down to the assertion that Google users overall are left of center so reminding Google users to vote unfairly benefits Democrats. Furthermore, he argues that Google could theoretically remind only subsections of the population and in doing so skew the vote more significantly at some point in the future.

Frankly the whole letter and article is quite conspiratorial and backed up only by references to his own equally bombastic claims.


It is quite conspiratorial. It’s really hard for Google to prove they didn’t do this as it’s proving a negative.

I think the argument boils down to since they are capable of doing so, and no one would be able to tell if they did; therefore search must be open to prevent such potential actions.

Google has been caught doing things like favoring inferior shopping searches to point to their own products. So maybe it is possible to detect and not as much of a risk.


>Interesting. I assumed they displayed those for everyone

They did. Epstein's argument is this:

1. Google is run by liberals

2. Higher voter turnout is better for Democrats than Republicans.

3. The liberals that run Google used their position to increase voter turnout.

4. He uses some hand waving to approximate actual numbers

Most importantly, none of that claim is peer reviewed and he is citing himself for it, with no real way to verify if his numbers or conclusion is accurate or even realistic.

fwiw, here's his cited source:

https://www.theepochtimes.com/another-way-google-manipulates...


He is essentially claiming that encouraging voter turnout is a partisan act biased towards the Democratic Party (rather than something which makes elections fairer) and hence Google engaged in a partisan act by simply encouraging higher turnout.


If encouraging voting is electioneering then surely withholding information about voting is as well.

And if "go vote" is a threat to democracy then I shudder to think of what newspaper endorsements, superpac advertisements and opinion news channels are. Heck, election day isn't a federal holiday so flexible work hours (which favor the professional class and therefore Republicans) must be a conspiracy to sway elections!

It's baffling that anybody takes this seriously.


so he's complaining that this is a kind of digital gerrymandering?

they should just do what we do in Australia and make voting mandatory for everyone.

Fixes this issue immediately :-P and arguably is MORE democratic. (But I suspect that's going to make him unhappy as well)


> they should just do what we do in Australia and make voting mandatory for everyone.

I could see that. Or at least make it a national holiday so people can get off work.


It is more democratic, but you won't see the ruling party pass laws that actively ruin their future chances of winning elections.


It could be that “get out the vote” drives generally benefit Democrats more than Republicans - I seem to recall reading a few studies that support this.


> I assumed they displayed those for everyone.

They presumably did. If you follow the link for that [0] he extrapolitaed a bunch of numbers with "more people who use Google search lean left than right" and thus telling people to go vote influences more people who vote left.

[0]: https://m.theepochtimes.com/another-way-google-manipulates-v...


Google search has gone down the proverbial shithole in the last 2 years, and has been struggling long before that. Even for non political searches it returns horrible results. It's a threat in the short-term, and then it will be replaced since the algorithm is falling apart.


The crap results I get in place of good ones are pretty spammy. I suspect it's not google that's getting worse, but spammers getting better. That's not something a google alternative will magically do better combatting.


It's been getting worse for way more than 2 years. Remember when google would honor quotes and the plus sign to force those terms to appear in the results?


Can I have an example where quotes are not honored?

To force a certain spelling even for a single word, enclose it in quotes.


Yeah they got beat by spam and hired a bunch of subpar engineers through their leetcode dogma


>A worldwide network of passive monitoring systems must be built to protect humanity and democracy from manipulations by today’s Google and the Googles of tomorrow.

Yeah no thanks.


Right. Feral cats are a problem, so let's release tigers to take care of them.

"Monitoring systems" are exactly why Google and similar companies are a problem.


If even a fraction of the allegations in the PDF are true, wouldn't Google be exposed to a campaign finance compliance issue?

Or, to put it in another way, since these corporations are just giant buckets of money sloshing around, wouldn't it be true that pretty much any political activism they incorporate into their business operations would have the potential to be considered an election-influencing political contribution?


It seems to me that Epstein is far more annoyed that bad things are working against things he cares about, than that bad things are happening.

Many people have been very concerned with Google's monopolistic power over the economy.

Literally the difference in these two auto completes, can mean a make or break most businesses: brand name is... scam brand name is... great

Add to that google has been unjustly pushing it's own sites to the top and you have blatant market manipulation, even if it doesn't conform to the legal definition of this term, it definitively conforms to the spirit of the law.

That never bothered Mr Epstein.

But as soon as he can give it a political spin, all of a sudden this power and its abuse are an issue.

And even then it is so narrow and in a space so rife with bias that it's hard to take seriously. I mean, the major networks don't even feature 3rd party candidates in the debate. And yet I don't hear him crying bias. I'm pretty sure media bias is way more pervasive and swings more elections than google or Facebook has ever done.

The issue at hand should be Google's monopoly on search, it's blatant bias and the oversize power that gives them. If you pick up on specifics and not address the wider issue, I'm going to have to wonder why.


>In 2016, biased search results generated by Google’s search algorithm likely impacted undecided voters in a way that gave at least 2.6 million votes to Hillary Clinton.

This is the most important claim that he makes, and as far as I can tell, he gives zero backing for it.

He has two citations. The first citation is a paper showing that re-ordering search results to show links to articles that favor candidate A will cause readers to favor candidate A. The second citation does not give any explanation for the 2.6 million figure.

----

Let's take a look at the second citation: https://www.theepochtimes.com/10-ways-big-tech-can-shift-mil...

>I found pro-Clinton bias in all 10 search positions on the first page of Google’s search results. [...] Because, as I noted earlier, Google’s search algorithm is not constrained by equal-time rules, it almost certainly ends up favoring one candidate over another in most political races, and that shifts opinions and votes.

This is literally true but realistically meaningless. Suppose that there are two candidates for office, A and B. Days before the election, it is revealed that candidate A fucks dogs. The news publishes many articles about candidate A fucking dogs. Google places those articles highly in search results, and many voters see them.

Has Google shown pro-candidate B bias by showing those articles? Obviously not. Unless Epstein can show that a viewpoint-neutral ranking would have produced a different result, what he has is meaningless.


Full disclosure: I work on cryptography for Google, nothing related to this particular article.

These claims are a bit...much. In the 2016 election, which was characterized by media manipulation and fake news stories, Google's results, according to his analysis, seemed to skew favorably toward Clinton. How do you even control for all the confounding factors here? Maybe Google is just better at weeding out misinformation than Bing, resulting in fewer negative stories about Clinton (or fewer positive stories about Trump).

Then in 2018 Google threatened democracy by telling people to go out and vote, which clearly is an act of voter manipulation by Google in Dr. Epstein's view. In that same election, Dr. Epstein claims that Google's results were biased in favor of one party; yet in that same election, one party's talking points were divorced from reality, so any search algorithm than favors truthfulness would have to favor the other party.


An algorithm cannot favor truthfulness but only a certain definition of truthfulness. And that definition is not the thing itself.


Robert Epstein - the self citing author of that testimony - had his website flagged as a security threat by Google a few yeas back and he's been on a vendetta ever since.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Robert_Epstein#Criticism_of_Go...


I really like his idea for making Google's search index a public commons. Google search is by far their most popular product in terms of traffic, it's one of the most controversial and easily abused, and it's not even their main revenue stream. Google can survive without search, and the internet would be better off if there was more competition.

The only issue I see is how would you make sure other smaller companies aren't providing biased search results too? His idea for having a monitoring system sounds like a privacy nightmare for users. At least you can regulate the hell out of Google and have actual audits. Doing the same for thousands of search engines isn't easy.


The index isn't the hard part, it is the ranking. The proposal also makes basically all forms of anti abuse impossible.


Epstein's argument seems to assume that any information which shifts an undecided person's view is biased. Basic chemistry lessons make the claims of homeopaths seem downright silly. Does that mean that teaching chemistry is biased against homeopathy, or is homeopathy just not all that great an idea?

Well, perhaps that definition of bias is specific to strictly political topics rather than questions about the observable effects of various actions. Even so, by the standard of shifting views a certain direction, does Google present as much of a threat to democracy as higher education does?



There’s no threat to our democracy, if that’s the case then that means it’s a weak mindset and that the only truth, because it’s a dangerous deadly and downright demonic ideology. So abort democracy in order to avoid the sixth birthing of feminism. They both gotta go and get with Islam, just read Quran and Sunnah. What has DeMoCracy actual achieve if not causing confusion and delay???


Google doesn't pose more threat than any other big recognized brands that people trust.

It's all about trust. If people trust more Google or Apple than the legacy system, then maybe these brands earned people trust by also doing good things (sometime) ? Of course they have now a great responsability.


What kind of scholar doesn't have any references to something he didn't write? Surely Epstein's not the only scholar in the field of search engine effects.


The electoral system in the US has so many other gigantic flaws. It is only wracked by such controversies because it so bad at representing the interests of the voters.


In this case there is zero such interest. It's just a focused shakedown of companies that contribute to the opposing party at an equal or greater rate than the ruling party.


Youtube "recommendations"? Sure. Facebook? Absolutely.


Why is Google in particular an issue and not, say, Facebook?


Someone call Jaron.


what an odd endorsement of Google


Frankly, a lot of this is worrisome. I lean libertarian/centrist/classic-liberal in terms of my views. Lately I feel that even trying to engage with anyone to the left is an effort in futility. Especially in Pacific-Coast tech companies. Reason doesn't seem to matter, only feelings.

I was blocked on twitter for nearly a week, while they reviewed my challenge and judged against me, for posting anti-violence messages of all things.

I can't help but feel if the likes of Google, Twitter and Facebook are censoring otherwise legal and non-violent content in favor of a political ideology, they deserve to lose section 230 protections.


Google/Twitter/Facebook are the ultimate stage in media consolidation. 3 mega-corporations controlling the information feeds for the vast majority of people in the world. Even with the best intentions, I can't see how this arrangement can fare well. The amount of power wielded is just astonishing.

In historical context, US media has been undergoing a unabated consolidation for the past 3 decades. "In 1983, 90% of US media was controlled by 50 companies; as of 2011, 90% was controlled by just 6 companies and in 2017 the number was 5.", https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Concentration_of_media_ownersh....


I don't think they are exercising their power like they should be. Google and YouTube should delist Foxnews.com for promoting hate content, same with Facebook.


Should CNN be delisted for hosting a racist Nazi last week?


Maybe they should practice what was the equal time rule / coverage.


> I feel that even trying to engage with anyone to the left

Maybe if you would step back from the partisan-thinking mode, you would find people more amenable to your views?

Labeling things 'left' or 'right' or 'liberal' may be a convenient shorthand, but it is not intellectually honest. Reality doesn't conform to party lines.


You have to be able to name things... what names would you use?


"lose"




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