“You won’t know who to trust . . .”
It’s a familiar refrain in any number of thrillers in which protagonists find themselves entangled in webs of overlapping conspiracies. You think you have a position, an ideology, and allies; and it turns out you’re being played by a powerful manipulator pulling strings on both sides of the battle. The lines between good and evil blur…
It wasn’t that long ago that Google enjoyed substantial credibility among progressives, who like to think of themselves as unfailingly opposed to corporate influence in public policy; and it was just this week that Washington Post reporters Tom Hamburger and Matea Gold published this in-depth article revealing just how rapidly Google has learned to use its considerable resources to amplify its voice in Washington. It’s well worth a read, particularly, I feel, to understand some of the more subtle means by which a company like Google can evangelize its agenda in public debate outside the Beltway. Lobbying is a reality, and every industry is going to participate; but it isn’t very subtle, and it isn’t all that difficult to learn how much a particular corporation or industry spends on K Street. Far more insidious, I believe, is when a corporation or industry can strategically sponsor the outcome of public discourse in the guise of academic fora, research, and policy-influencing organizations that the public believes to be citizen advocates.
Imagine a corporation that has enough money to fund or sponsor a vast network of policy-affecting organizations that appeal to the broad spectrum of ideologies but ultimately lead public sentiment to the same conclusions. Imagine further that this same corporation actually controls most of the technology used to disseminate these messages and, moreover, that the public believes itself to be liberated by the wealth of “information” made freely available by those technologies.
Consider, for example, that Google funds both the progressive-styled Public Knowledge and the decidedly conservative American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC). The former organization promotes messages of openness, individual expression, and access to knowledge delivered in the tone of a professor at a liberal arts college. The latter organization is specifically designed to facilitate corporate, pay-to-play influence on public policy while pumping out conservative messages promoting small government and free markets. And thanks to social media platforms like Facebook, where so much short-attention-span politicking takes place, we the people are now neatly organized into ideological echo chambers. If you and your friends are generally left-leaning, you’re likely to see items in your news feed from an organization like Public Knowledge; if you and your friends are right-leaning, your’e likely to see items from an organization like ALEC. But here’s the genius part for a company like Google, in this case: once you strip away the veneer of liberal or conservative, these apparently divergent organizations are both promoting the same bottom-line message — leave Google alone.
A corporation funding both political camps doesn’t care if its unfettered existence is sustained in the name of liberal free speech or conservative small government, just so long as it remains unfettered. And Google is certainly not the only corporation playing this game, but it would be hard to point to a single company today that is more capable of having its fingerprints on more messages in the vast mosaic of communication that exist between the cloisters of Washington and the coffee shops of the blogosphere. And one unique feature of the politics of internet companies is the manner in which they can align the idea of protecting the internet itself as synonymous with protecting its design to date; and that translates into a kind of “too big to fail” status for the largest players. And in this context, it’s worth mentioning that Google is a company that could use a bit of fettering from time to time. Despite a history of investigations and/or penalties for anti-trust violations, copyright infringements, privacy invasions, and profiting from illegal drug trafficking, there remains a distinctly world-domination theme to this information juggernaut with the cute logo and adorably nerdy appearance. I offer this quote from a February article in The Guardian written by Carole Cadwalladr about genius technologist Ray Kurzweil, who presently serves as Google’s Director of Engineering:
Google will know the answer to your question before you have asked it, he [Kurzweil] says. It will have read every email you’ve ever written, every document, every idle thought you’ve ever tapped into a search-engine box. It will know you better than your intimate partner does. Better, perhaps, than even yourself.
Assuming Kurzweil is right (and he has a habit of being right about a lot of things), the question is whether or not the future projected in that stated ambition is a future we actually want. Of greater, immediate concern, however, is to what extent we are engaged in that discussion at all. What should be clear at this moment, I believe, is that those goals Kurzweil describes can best be accomplished in a society that has either abandoned or radically reshaped its attitudes about privacy and about ownership of intellectual property. This coincides with my own instincts that so much of the “debate” about copyrights and patents are often little proxy wars whose purpose is propaganda meant to foster a generation of Americans who will voluntarily forego the notion of intellectual property on the grounds that it is an antiquated right. Ditto privacy, with the exception that it turns out all one needs to do get people to give up that right is invent Facebook and Twitter.
So, while the bloom may fade from Google’s progressive rose as it cozies up to groups like The Heritage Foundation and donates to the campaign of Ted Cruz, that’s not necessarily the big story. I think the big story is going to be how effectively one corporation, or one industry, can convince people of even opposing ideologies to give up certain rights in the name of what that industry defines as “progress?”