Democratic presidential candidate Tulsi Gabbard has renewed the debate surrounding the outsized influence of tech companies in American politics with her lawsuit against Google.
Ms. Gabbard, a U.S. representative from Hawaii, has alleged that Google's decision to temporarily suspend her advertising account after the June Democratic primary debates was tantamount to suppressing her candidacy. Her lawsuit accuses Google of violating her First Amendment rights, for which she is seeking $50 million and assurances that Google will not censor or restrict her account further.
Google has countered that Ms. Gabbard's account was flagged for "unusual activity" and suspended "to prevent fraud and protect our customers." The company claims Ms. Gabbard's account was quickly reinstated and that it is "proud to offer ad products that help campaigns connect directly with voters ... without any bias toward any party or political ideology."
This litigation is pending and, as a result, few facts are publicly known. But the case is a stark reminder that Google, whether it does so purposefully or not, has the power to adjust the volume on people's voices, promoting or limiting certain ideas largely at the whim of certain algorithms.
Google has received criticism for many years about perceived instances of censorship. People from across the political spectrum have raised concerns that Google's search engine algorithms ensure certain ideas bubble to the top of searches, while others sink to the bottom.
While some assume that Google is doing this with malicious intent, the truth seems to be far more dull: the company's algorithms are doing much of the censorship, lifting up or dragging down certain websites based on a computer program's assessment of a set of unknown variables.
It is true that most computer algorithms reflect the biases of their creators. But considering that voices from both the left and the right have been quasi-censored by Google's algorithms, it seems safe to say that more is going on than just political preference.
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But because Google is a private company, it is not obligated to share specifics about how its operations work. This prevents researchers, or even just ordinary people, from seeing exactly how its algorithms decide what to promote and what to bury.
The same goes for how Google's algorithms police other activity, like how advertising accounts are spending money. The fear of Russian influence on U.S. elections led companies like Google and Facebook to heavily alter their algorithmic policing of advertising and content, but the public has little information about how exactly those changes impact what information they are able to consume.
And when one recognizes Google's power to transmit information — approximately 5.6 billion searches are made each day through the company's search engine — the opacity of its practices become that much more concerning.
Ms. Gabbard's assertion that Google intentionally damaged her campaign may be hard to prove. But her lawsuit has once again dragged Silicon Valley into view, reminding the public of the stranglehold tech companies have on how we process and consume information.
Algorithms that fundamentally impact how information is controlled and prioritized should be made available for public review. People have a right to decide if they are comfortable with how Google, Facebook or any other company is deciding what we can and cannot read or view. If these companies are confident in their business practices, they'll have nothing to fear.
-- Toledo (Ohio) Blade