In the late 1990s, my local school district’s Internet “expert” was extolling both the grandness and greatness that the Internet could deliver. Among those new and innovative means of finding information on the World Wide Web was search. Thinking back to that period, the nascent beginnings of the global interconnectedness that the Internet has created, it is sometimes hard to believe that the number of search engines could not be fit on one hand. Search was a competitive and fast-moving arena where each company, from AltaVista to WebCrawler, battled for each of us to input an idea, a name, or a concept, in the search form on their homepage.
AltaVista has come and gone. Today, the battle is largely between Google and, to a small degree, Bing. For all intents and purposes, Google has revolutionized the “search” concept. While Google – and its supporters – claim a freedom of information never before witnessed in human existence, the reality is a bit more nuanced and different. In many ways, while Google was destroying the competition and establishing the modern search engine that has largely dominated the past decade, it has outgrown itself. Google is no longer a company solely based on search, instead it is a major media company that attempts to redevelop and establish a new world order in its name and image.
Why, one might ask, is this a problem? Google, after all, indexes the Internet and those billions upon billions of pages that exist in order to enable users like us to find the information most relevant. On the face of it there is not a fundamental problem with providing this service. Where Google has succeeded and others in the past failed, is in the monetization of search. By indexing web pages with their unique and much more in-depth algorithm to find information online, Google discovered that by categorizing the searcher – read: you and me – they have been able to cash in where others did not.
Online advertising and personal information – including your search history – has given Google a unique perspective on Internet culture and its happenings. For the past decade since Google finally stood atop the summit of the Internet world, users’ information has itself been indexed and stored, and sold to third parties, for the purpose of targeting advertisements to users that bring in massive amounts of revenue for the Mountain View-based Internet giant.
Last summer’s “Right to be Forgotten” ruling by a European court has led to a debate over free speech. Opponents of the European Union’s decision to allow individuals to request that certain old and outdated information about themselves to be taken down from searches by Google and Bing has led to a debate over whether this will lead to a weaker, less democratic Internet. I would argue, however, that Google has become the Internet Patriarch, whereby a few programmers and management decide what is the most important, the most relevant, the right information to be handed out to users.
Google brings in billions of dollars annually and uses its financial and online status to determine what each individual sees online based on their search history. But there are alternatives being developed that aim to attack the search status quo in order to deliver us from the perceived evil of one corporation choosing what is important and what is not.
Among those alternatives is a new start-up currently in stealth mode being developed by a group of former Google, Apple, and Oracle web gurus who believe the Internet can be a unifying democratic concept once again. Their goal is to show the world that search and the Internet as we know it today is one that gives the powerful a step up in the battle to unseat Google as the domineering force it has become. To do so, these programmers are creating a new search, one that allows individual users to take back control of search that is void of one set of restrictive algorithms, one set of thinking that purports one idea or news item as more important than another. This, they believe – and I would agree – is part of the new wave of democratizing the Internet movement that has slowly emerged in Silicon Valley as a competitor to the establishment that Google has come to symbolize.
“What we are seeing right now is the fruition of a lack of oversight on the Internet,” said one of the programmers, who left Google because he believed the company’s data collection methods infringed on basic human rights. “It enables companies to amass massive amounts of information about their users, people who search online, and their personal data.”
I can only hope that these new efforts will be successful and that this group of young, maybe idealistic, programmers will be able to change how we see search. As it stands today, search has outgrown itself; from a useful concept in the mid-1990s to the gigantic stature that Google has encompassed in its rise to Internet domination since the early 2000s. It is no longer about information, even as Google and its supporters criticize any effort to chink away at the armor of the search giant. Today, search is about money and growth. But it shouldn’t be. It should be about the power of one individual, wherever they are searching from, to discern information relevant to their being. Instead, search has morphed into a concept based on one company’s ideas for “civilization.”
As Dan Gillmore concluded earlier this year in his Digital Being column in The Guardian: “The situation will only get worse if we don’t take what we learn and insist – to the politicians who represent us and the companies we patronize – that the details of our lives are not theirs to buy and sell. I don’t believe we get the society we deserve, but we do get the one we allow.”