Tech criticism done badly

Robert Epstein, Google’s laziest critic, is back.

We last heard from Epstein last summer, when he was shouting in Politico about how Google could totally “rig” the next election. I took a look at the underlying research. It was complete garbage. I explained why.

This time, US News & World Report has published an Epstein Op-Ed about how Google is “the new censorship.” He writes:

in my view Google’s blacklisting practices put the company into the role of thuggish internet cop – a role that was never authorized by any government, nonprofit organization or industry association. It is as if the biggest bully in town suddenly put on a badge and started patrolling, shuttering businesses as it pleased, while also secretly peeping into windows, taking photos and selling them to the highest bidder.

What makes Google a “thuggish internet cop?” Epstein lists 9 types of “blacklist” that Google maintains:

(1) the autocomplete blacklist (some terms are suppressed from autocomplete).

(2) the Google Maps blacklist (you can’t view military sites through Google Maps).

(3) the YouTube blacklist (Google removes inappropriate videos).

(4) the Google account blacklist (Google can suspend your account if you violate its terms of service).

(5) the Google News blacklist (this isn’t actually anything.)

(6) the Google AdWords blacklist (Google can exclude exploitative industries, like payday lenders, from using adwords).

(7) the Google AdSense blacklist (some thinly-sourced conspiracy theory about Google dumping AdSense partners just before it would have to pay them for running Google ads).

(8) the search engine blacklist (Google can downgrade your search rankings if its engineers decide you’re intentionally gaming its system).

(9) the quarantine list (Google scans for malware on websites and will quarantine them if it finds any).

Epstein takes 4,300 words to enumerate all of these “blacklists” (US News & World Report apparently wanted the hot take, but not enough to provide him with an editor!).  But the thing is, none of these amount to much of anything! Each of these “blacklists” is a necessary component of Google’s work. Of course some autocomplete results will be suppressed. Of course Google Maps blurs sensitive locations. Of course YouTube has a takedown process… and Google can suspend your account… and the AdWords Marketplace excludes some predatory (and illegal) industries… and Google blocks sites infected by malware.  If Google didn’t do any of these things, it would face outrage (in several cases, it has faced outrage, thus leading to the current state of affairs).

As just one example, consider Epstein’s complaint about Google AdWords. Here he is taking the side of the payday lending industry (Yes, the same industry John Oliver discusses in the video below). Payday loan sharks are a blight on the poor. They use Google Ads to target desperate, vulnerable people, then trap them in loans with massive interest rates. This sort of thing used to be illegal. The US Congress ought to make it illegal again, but Congress doesn’t function anymore. So Google took the stance that it would no longer accept advertisements from loan sharks.

Epstein tells us this is proof of Google’s terrible power as a censor. He thinks that Google ought to be investigated as a result. (By who? Congress? The same Congress that can’t get its act together on predatory lending? Nice priorities, buddy.) But what Epstein is ignoring is that there is no neutral stance for Google here. The company can either promote and profit from predatory lending scams or it can suppress predatory lenders. There is no third option.

Google has quasi-monopolistic market share in the areas of web search and web video. Entire industries revolve around trying to game Google’s search rankings or exploit unsuspecting users. Google’s engineers monitor and respond to the behavior of these industries.  They probably don’t monitor or respond well enough. There are serious reasons for criticism here (see Siva Vaidhyanthan and Kate Crawford if you want to read some of the real reasons for concern. Crawford’s New York Times piece yesterday was particularly insightful). Regulators have an important role to play.

But Epstein isn’t engaging in serious scholarship or good-faith critique. He’s trolling for attention, operating on the assumption that most of us won’t read much further than the headlines. His Google-can-rig-elections screed still gets trotted out every few months, usually by a well-meaning critic who is grasping for evidence of the dangerous power of search engines. The guy manages to be wrong loudly enough to gain at least a bit of traction.

The best way to combat highly-placed, bad arguments on the Internet is to ridicule them. So this is me, doing my part:

US News & World Report ought to have higher standards than this. Robert Epstein is a clown. He makes poorly-sourced, outlandish arguments in an annual bid for public attention. He would be an embarrassment to the research community if he were actually part of the research community. He’s managed to write a 4,300 word essay without ever addressing any of the glaring problems with his argument.

Please don’t take this guy seriously. It’ll only make actual conversations about the roles and responsibilities of tech giants that much harder.

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