Google is too big, too octopus-like, too invasive, too knowing, too powerful. Anybody disagree that Google offers a creative scenario of a dystopian, one-company, one-information-source future?
Americans might have divided feelings about the company — pride as well as trepidation. But in Europe — where there is some experience with dystopian futures — feelings are much less mixed. "Stop Google" is a regulatory mantra for both left-wing and nationalistic bureaucrats.
To little avail — until last week.
In a nonappealable ruling, the European Court of Justice gave individuals the right to redact results on searches of their names — for wrong information, out-of-date information and, it seems too, just unflattering information. This new right — immediately enforceable — presumably extends to politicians, and perhaps corporations, if not governments. In other words, it's the end pretty much of search as we know it. Or, arguably, it is the end for Europe — serviced by denuded search engines (the ruling applies to all search engines) and kept from knowing what the rest of the world knows.
On the other hand, losing the European search market is rather a big hit on Google as we know it, hegemonically and economically. Indeed, it is a clever model for how authoritarian regimes, long confounded by Google, can bring it to heel — let everybody edit their own search results.
So where are we? Have we reached the limits of a 20-year experiment in information aggregation and access? Or is this one of those cultural snafus that technological advances regularly encounter and inevitably beat down or work around?
It is perhaps helpful to first look at this not from the view of principle — called in Europe "the right to be forgotten" — or technology, but of power.
Anybody interested in power — governments, bureaucrats, major companies — is focused on Google, which has established itself as a countervailing or insurgent force to not only every traditional information and media company, but, practically speaking, to all consumer-facing enterprises. There is hardly modern life, at this point, without Google. Likewise, Google has become another aspect of American power that Europe has long resented and regularly worked to frustrate. (There are, too, many American power centers eager to put brakes on Google.)
Which brings us to principle — convenient or otherwise.
Google is not a news or editorial organization in any conventional sense, yet it benefits from all conventional American notions of the freedom to publish whatever you want. On this basis, and much to the consternation of other publishers (who, desperately, would like to foil it), Google has been able to effectively republish what others have published. If it's difficult to correct or challenge what the press publishes, it is impossible when Google republishes. In some quirk of semantics and law, while it enjoys the freedom of a publisher, it is yet somehow not one — more a telephone system that's not responsible for the opinions or facts expressed by the people using it.
Every person who appears in a Google search — that is, nearly everyone — has misinformation attached to him or her. About every organization, every entity, every product, every subject searched, Google supplies erroneous facts. Google is surely the greatest repository of untruths ever imagined.
In the U.S., there is a free-market view that truth, or a greater truth, emerges from more rather than less information. In Europe, partly because wrong information has so often historically prevailed, there is a much more skeptical view. Information is power. The more control you have over it, the more powerful you are, therefore the less powerful deserve some protections from it.
Not incidentally, extending the individual more power with regard to Google nicely diminishes Google's power and helps to hold the savage economic and cultural beast at the door.
The world reaction, or at least the reaction among the technologically elite and ambitious, is that this is merely a spasm from European Luddites and protectionists. No matter, Google is inevitable and, in some sense, all powerful. Indeed, Europeans themselves will merely search using Google in the U.S. Duh. (Although the default setting is well known to be one of the strongest motivators in technology.)
Except that, everywhere, there is an awakening response from governments and regulators, both liberal and illiberal, to the digital free market — from efforts to oversee Airbnb in New York, to rules about bandwidth use in Washington, to the increasing digital savviness of the world's dictators. Combine that with an interest on the part of almost everyone who is not Google to level, to any degree, the playing field.
Google is a mighty force, but there are yet other mighty forces, including the ever-exasperating Europeans, aligned against it.
And, of course, what Google is and does is indefensible. It is unaccountable and, somehow, because of the extraordinary speed with which it has exerted control, we've hardly questioned that.
Anyway, Microsoft. In the 1990s, Microsoft was as vast and as powerful as Google — more perhaps. And it got waylaid in Europe. The bureaucrats pinned it down. Perhaps that is a European function now, to be a brake on modernity and technological growth. Not to stop it, but to check its pitiless march.