The Internet Without Intermediaries

May 29th, 2013

I recently read, but didn’t particularly enjoy Eric Schmidt’s new book. As if answering my call, Evgeny Morozov has a brilliant fisking of the book, titled “Future Schlock.” One passage from Morozov’s review in particular resonated with similar thoughts I had about the book.

Cohen and Schmidt argue—without a hint of irony—that “the printing press, the landline, the radio, the television, and the fax machine all represent technological revolutions, but [they] all required intermediaries. … [The digital revolution] is the first that will make it possible for almost everybody to own, develop and disseminate real-time content without having to rely on intermediaries.” Presumably we will disseminate “real-time content” brain to brain, because that is the only way to avoid intermediaries. Coming from senior executives of the world’s most powerful intermediary—the one that shapes how we find information (not to mention Google’s expansion into fields like fiber networks)—all this talk about the disappearance of intermediaries is truly bizarre and disingenuous. This may have been more accurate in the 1990s, when everyone was encouraged to run their own e-mail server—but the authors appear to have missed the advent of cloud computing and the subsequent empowerment of a handful of information intermediaries (Google, Facebook, Amazon).

This is a very profound point. The internet is often thought of this wide-open medium that allows two parties to connect through any filters.

Recall how Justice Stevens characterized the internet in ACLU v. Reno (way back) in 1997:

Anyone with access to the Internet may take advantage of a wide variety of communication and information retrieval methods. These methods are constantly evolving and difficult to categorize precisely. But, as presently constituted, those most relevant to this case are electronic mail (“e mail”), automatic mailing list services (“mail exploders,” sometimes referred to as “listservs”), “newsgroups,” “chat rooms,” and the “World Wide Web.” All of these methods can be used to transmit text; most can transmit sound, pictures, and moving video images. Taken together, these tools constitute a unique medium–known to its users as “cyberspace”–located in no particular geographical location but available to anyone, anywhere in the world, with access to the Internet.

This probably wasn’t accurate in 1997, and definitely is not true today. Now Morozov focuses primarily on the limitations placed on Google by the states in which they operate:

Just how good is it to be the king of the “world’s largest ungoverned space” if your assets and employees are still hostage to the whims of governments in physical space? Does anyone at Google really believe in the existence of “an online world that is not truly bound by terrestrial laws”? Where is that world, and if it exists, why hasn’t Google set up shop there yet? How come Google keeps running into so much trouble with all those pesky “terrestrial laws”—in Italy, India, Germany, China? Next time Google runs afoul of someone’s “terrestrial laws,” I suggest that Cohen and Schmidt try their two-world hypothesis in court.

But the filters Google places on the exchange of information is usually self-imposed. By highlighting information in its search placement, and the inverse of that, suppressing other undesirable information, Google does surreptitiously what no state-imposed filter could ever hope to do. Show billions of people the information that Google wants us to see, and hide the information Google does not want us to see. If you aren’t in Google, you don’t exist. There’s a reason why so many companies are suing Google for being pushed down in search results. Now, more often than not, this is not a problem. The top page-ranked results are probably the “best”  result. But, how does Google define best? So here’s the charitable concern. Invariably, by guessing at what we want, Google will omit things that we really want. Here’s the less charitable concern. Google can suppress information that is going to make it less money, and promote information that will make it more money. Again, there may be a venn diagram of sorts, where the things I really want, and the things Google profits from intersects. But I won’t know where that shaded area is.

I was recently talking with a friend about the next generation of targeted marketing. For example, when Facebook serves you with an advertisement, rather than giving you a generic model pitching a product, Facebook takes a composite of the faces of your best friends, and creates a spokesperson that subtly reminds you of your friends. Marketing studies show that people are more likely to buy things from people who look like their friends. I suggested that this is like having a virtual Don Draper. Here, Facebook is using your personal information to serve you ads that you are more likely to buy from. This is definitely something Facebook profits from, and in a sense, you are buying a product that you want (or need?). Everyone wins, right? I’m still conflicted about this. I like when Google or Facebook targets me with advertisements of things I want to buy, though I worry that i may be nudged into buying stuff I wouldn’t otherwise want.

But where does this leave us with respect to this “unintermediated” market. Can we let Google arrange these transactions solo? At a recent conference, I commented on a paper that argued that Google alone can’t be trusted, and that the government must intervene. The paper (admittedly a draft) was short on actual suggestions of how the state can get involved here. I balked at this suggestion, and worried about the First Amendment implications, but more generally, was concerned that the risk of harm from the state meddling in search greatly exceeded any gains to be had. (see also First Amendment Architecture by my friend Marvin Ammori).

I plan on writing about this further at some point.