Robert Epstein, who received his Ph.D. in psychology from Harvard in 1981 and served as the former editor in chief at Psychology Today, is now a senior research psychologist for the American Institute of Behavioral Research and Technology, where for the last decade he has helped expose Google’s manipulative and deceptive practices. He explains what got him interested in investigating the internet search monopoly in the first place:
“In 2012, January 1st, I received some emails from Google saying my website contained malware and that they were somehow blocking access. This means I had gotten onto one of Google’s blacklists.
“My website did contain some malware. It was pretty easy to get rid of, but it turns out it’s hard to get off of a Google blacklist. That’s a big problem. I started looking at Google just a little bit differently.
“I wondered, first of all, why they were notifying me about this rather than some government agency or some nonprofit organization? Why was a private company notifying me?
“In other words, who made Google sheriff of the internet? Second, I learned they had no customer service department, which seemed very strange, so if you have a problem with Google, then you have a problem because they don’t help you solve the problem.
“I learned also that although you can get onto a blacklist in a split second, it can take weeks to get off a blacklist. There have been businesses that have gotten onto their blacklists and have gone out of business while they’re trying to straighten out the problem.
“The thing that really caught my eye — because I’ve been a programmer my whole life — was I couldn’t figure out how they were blocking access to my website, not just through their own products … Google.com, the search engine, or through Chrome, which is their browser, but through Safari, which is an Apple product, through Firefox, which is a browser run by Mozilla, a nonprofit organization.
“How was Google blocking access through so many different means? The point is I just started to get more curious about the company, and later in 2012, I happened to be looking at a growing literature, which was about the power of search rankings to impact sales.
“This was in the marketing field and it just was astonishing. In other words, if you could push yourself up one more notch in their search results, that could make the difference between success or failure for your company; it could mean a lot more income.
“It turns out that this initial research was saying that people really trust those higher ranked search results. I simply asked a question. I wondered whether, if people trust those higher rank search results, I could use search results to influence people’s opinions, maybe even their votes.”
What Epstein discovered through his subsequent research, which began in 2013, is that yes, biased search results can indeed be used to influence public opinion and sway undecided voters. What’s more, the strength of that influence was shocking.
He also eventually discovered how Google is able to block website access on browsers other than their own. His findings were published in 2016 in U.S. News & World Report.1
Google’s Powers Pose Serious Threats to Society
Google’s powers pose three specific threats to society:
1. They’re a surveillance agency with significant yet hidden surveillance powers. As noted by Epstein:
“The search engine … Google Wallet, Google Docs, Google Drive, YouTube, these are surveillance platforms. In other words, from their perspective, the value these tools have is they give them more information about you. Surveillance is what they do.”
2. They’re a censoring agency with the ability to restrict or block access to websites across the internet, thus deciding what people can and cannot see. They even have the ability to block access to entire countries and the internet as a whole.
The most crushing problem with this kind of internet censorship is that you don’t know what you don’t know. If a certain type of information is removed from search, and you don’t know it should exist somewhere, you’ll never go looking for it. And, when searching for information online, how would you know that certain websites or pages have been removed from the search results in the first place? The answer is, you don’t.
For example, Google has been investing in DNA repositories for quite a long time, and are adding DNA information to our profiles. According to Epstein, Google has taken over the national DNA repository, but articles about that — which he has cited in his own writings — have all vanished.
3. They have the power to manipulate public opinion through search rankings and other means.
“To me, that’s the scariest area,” Epstein says, “because Google is shaping the opinions, thinking, beliefs, attitudes, purchases and votes of billions of people around the world without anyone knowing that they’re doing so … and perhaps even more shocking, without leaving a paper trail for authorities to trace.
They’re using new techniques of manipulation that have never existed before in human history and they are for the most part, subliminal … but they don’t produce tiny shifts.
They produce enormous shifts in people’s thinking, very rapidly. Some of the techniques I’ve discovered are among the largest behavioral effects ever discovered in the behavioral sciences.”
While surveillance is Google’s primary business, their revenue — which exceeds $130 billion a year — comes almost exclusively from advertising. All that personal information you’ve provided them through their various products is sold to advertisers looking for a specific target audience.
A Dictator Unlike Anything the World Has Ever Known
Another, and even more frightening possibility, is that Google could allow its biased algorithm to favor one candidate over another without caring about which candidate is being favored.
“That’s the scariest possibility,” Epstein says, “because now you’ve got an algorithm, a computer program, which is an idiot … deciding who rules us. It’s crazy.”
While this sounds like it should be illegal, it’s not, because there are no laws or regulations that restrict or dictate how Google must rank its search results. Courts have actually concluded that Google is simply exercising its right to free speech, even if that means destroying the businesses they demote in their search listings or black listings.
The only way to protect ourselves from this kind of hidden influence is by setting up monitoring programs such as Epstein’s all over the world. “As a species, it’s the only way we can protect ourselves from new types of online technologies that can be used to influence us,” he says. “No dictator anywhere has ever had even a tiny fraction of the power that this company has.”
Epstein is also pushing for government to make the Google search index a public commons, which would allow other companies to create competing search platforms using Google’s database. While Google’s search engine cannot be broken up, its monopoly would be thwarted by forcing it to hand over its index to other search platform developers.