Googlement

“Googlement,” rather than “government,” seems to be the theme of Jeffrey Rosen’s NYT piece today on how Google decides what stays and what goes on its various platformsFrank Pasquale offered his own take on the piece here:  The ostensibly public-spirited motives of an enormous, for-profit enterprise ought to be examined critically.

My take differs from Frank’s.  I think that it is an error, critically speaking as well as legally speaking, to load up Google with all of our frustrations over Internet “gatekeepers,” whether those are public or private.  Rosen interviewed Tim Wu for the piece, and Tim persuaded Rosen to follow the “monarchist” metaphor:  “[T]o trust Google, you have to be something of a monarchist, willing to trust the near-sovereign discretion of [Googlers] Wong and her colleagues.”  Googlement displaces government; the two raise comparable issues of legitimacy and authority.

As to those foundational questions, I absolutely agree:  Socially as well as legally, what is the source of Google’s authority?  That problem, not just the “who decides” aspect of American-style free speech, lies at the core of modern information policy debates.  But the monarchist metaphor mistakenly builds in a hierarchy of authority that parallels the inherited hierarchy of authority that we typically use to describe government.  Googlement, on the monarchist reading, is comparably top-down.  Define and regulate Googlement, and the problem of private discretion seems to be solved.  Rosen buys this argument; he writes of his surprise that the Googlers would like nothing more than to be put out of the regulatory business altogether.

As Ed Rubin wrote persuasively in Beyond Camelot,  however, the monarchist metaphor is out-dated.  It might be good to be the king, as Mel Brooks once said, but the problem is not that Google is the new king, but instead that it is one king among many.  There are kings all around us.  Even if Google’s problem can be solved — some kings are bigger than others — problems of legitimacy and authority won’t go away.  What’s worse, as Rubin argues, the classic division of the argument into “public” regulation and “private” regulation is simply inadequate to describe what we actually observe.  Google itself is a private company — acting in the shadow of and (in the YouTube context especially) in express reliance on the (public) DMCA.  Lots of corporations and law firms block Facebook.  My local public high school blocks Blogger.  I could go on and on.  None of these demands precisely the same treatment as Google, but that is precisely the point.  The modern networked administrative state calls for something new.  Rosen concludes the piece with an a propos quotation from Kent Walker, Google’s GC (disclosure:  Kent has been a friend for roughly 30 years):  “We’re at the dawn of a new technology. . . . And when people try to come up with the best metaphors to describe it, all the metaphors run out. We’ve built this spaceship, but we really don’t know where it will take us.” Or, he might have said, where we will take it.

3 thoughts on “Googlement

  1. Good thoughts, Mike. One thing about monarchs is that those with armies and guns are usually accorded more respect. A better metaphor might be to the evolution of the Fourth Estate — in which Google (and search) might be characterized as a growing principality.

  2. I see these points, Mike, and I think Paul Ohm did all the Google-skeptics a big favor by pointing out how much greater a threat to privacy ISPs are than Google. Yes, there are lots of “kings” around. But at this point, I think I’m making some pretty minimal demands–someone to be able to “look under the hood” and understand what’s happening as the search algorithm evolves or is manipulated. This regime of qualified transparency (akin to the FISA court, which few believe hobbled US national security) is a sine qua non for accountability in general.

    I think that Weitzner is proposing the “something new” that you’re arguing for the “modern networked administrative state.” I’ll take a look at Rubin’s book. . . I have been trying to get into a book titled “The New Environmental Regulation” to get a sense of how to avoid the old curses of ossification and capture so common in the administrative realm.

  3. “willing to trust the near-sovereign discretion.” Nobody would have used this phrase in relation to Microsoft. I think we all need to be careful that we are not just trading one giant for another.

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