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Opinion: Internet privacy matters more than Google’s glittering facade

(Ashley Ko/Illustrations director)

By Phoebe Brous

Oct. 29, 2023 6:55 p.m.

This post was updated Oct. 31 at 4:14 p.m.

I love Google. I love the sleek, minimalist and colorful aesthetics of its products and the convenience of a centralized, easily accessible cloud. When I get a new computer, I immediately set Google Chrome as my default browser, and thanks to an agreement between Google and Apple, it’s automatically the default on my iPhone.

In September, the United States Department of Justice launched an anti-monopoly case against Google, alleging that the company initiated illegal agreements with Apple, LG Electronics, Samsung and other tech giants to make Chrome the “default search engine” on their respective devices. The DOJ argues that these contracts enabled Google to monopolize the search engine market, foreclosing competition, stunting innovation of new products and reducing the quality of general search services.

In addition to the Federal Trade Commission’s case against Amazon last month, U.S. v. Google represents government efforts to regulate tech markets and weaken their expanding market power. But even if there is evidence that Google’s business model exploits user data and hurts consumers, lawmakers and regulators must reconcile with the reality that people still trust Google and enjoy its services.

Dina Srinivasan, a fellow with the Thurman Arnold Project at Yale University and researcher of tech markets and antitrust laws, said the DOJ will have to prove two things. One, Google has monopoly status, and two, it was illegal for them to make “default search engine” deals with other tech companies.

Google’s relentless analysis of user data fuels its ability to maintain market dominance.

While the company’s services are technically free, users pay a price by agreeing to terms and conditions that allow the collection of their phone numbers, IP addresses, browsing histories, interactions with content and ads, and activity on third-party sites. This data is then used to train algorithms and artificial intelligence models to improve the effectiveness of search results, targeted ads and video recommendations.

Data scale can increase tremendously through network effects – the more people use a product, the more inclined others feel to join, especially in social environments. Network effects play a crucial role in training AI systems, providing a strong motivation for tech companies to keep gathering user data, even though it’s often seen as invasive.

Through this model, Google boasts about 4.3 billion users worldwide, with roughly 90% of all general search engine queries in the U.S. coming from Google-owned or controlled distribution channels. The company is valued at around $1.5 trillion and rakes in over $279.8 billion annually.

As of 2023, consumers ranked Google 80 out of 100 points based on the American Customer Satisfaction Index. A 2021 Verge Tech Survey on attitudes toward big tech found 90% of Americans had a favorable opinion of Google, with 69% saying they trust the company with their personal information.

A major contradiction lies within Google’s lack of data privacy and consumers’ strong satisfaction with their products. People enjoy Google, which will threaten the DOJ’s burden to prove that the company’s market power substantially harms consumers.

“Consumers overwhelmingly prefer Google search. When they have a choice, they pick Google search,” said Herbert Hovenkamp, a law professor at the University of Pennsylvania. “Saying that the mere fact that they’re using Google search is harmful is not going to get you very far.”

Despite Google’s popularity and glossy reputation, consumers still value their privacy. According to a 2019 Pew Research Center survey, 79% of U.S. adults are very or somewhat concerned about how companies use their data, and 81% of respondents say the risk of these firms collecting data outweighs the benefits.

How do regulators evaluate consumers’ satisfaction with Google’s services and the simultaneous desire for privacy? The truth is, consumer privacy preferences cannot materialize in a world with convoluted and lengthy terms of service agreements that the general population will rarely read or comprehend.

There’s a direct tradeoff between firms usurping markets and the protection of data privacy, said Srinivasan in a New York Times article. She added that the more market power a firm acquires, the more freedom they have to abuse users’ data in order to buy and sell ads more profitably.

“Social theory tells us that consumers want privacy when they’re communicating. It creates a safer environment in which to talk and to speak, and therefore they communicate more,” Srinivasan said.

Google’s recent changes to its terms of service authorize them to scrape users’ publicly posted data, representing the company’s consistent erosion of privacy standards. While some might argue that this data scraping is a necessary evil to innovate better services for users, consumers stating that they value their privacy demonstrates that the DOJ should leverage this concern to advocate for a different tech ecosystem.

Imagine the DOJ uncovers that Google engaged in unlawful conduct that harmed consumers along the way. What remedies might reinstill market competition while maintaining product quality?

Hovenkamp said the courts could strike down the default search provisions and mandate that each device maker offer its users multiple search engine choices when setting up their device. The government could force Google to share its database with competitors where it competes for advertisers and users, and device manufacturers such as Apple and Samsung could pick their own default engines without payment, he added.

While breaking up Google is a plausible option, opponents of this idea argue the search engine market is a natural monopoly because of its formidable data scale and fixed costs. If Judge Amit Mehta orders this remedy, then product quality might decrease because there will be fewer users, and consequently, less data available to improve Google’s algorithms and AI models. There’s a persuasive argument that consumers would be left worse off in a market with more firms and less centralized data.

Tim Wu, a professor of law, science and technology at Columbia Law School and former special assistant to President Biden for technology and competition policy, disagrees with this notion.

“If AI behaves like other technologies or like other markets, there will at some point be diminishing returns to scale, and the advantage of keeping scale for a firm will be primarily about preventing competition,” Wu said in an emailed statement. “The question of quality then becomes one that pits the incremental improvements coming from scale against the loss of innovation and other benefits, such as strong product differentiation, arising from competition.”

Although we haven’t seen a long-lasting, competitive and multi-firm search engine ecosystem, we might as well take the risk to hedge back against the threats of a single company holding billions of peoples’ information.

Protecting user privacy or understanding its demand is impossible in a market in which consumers are coerced into accepting incoherent terms of service agreements. Scholars who posit consumers’ behavior doesn’t match their expressed preferences for privacy misunderstand that they often have no choice but to capitulate in the first place.

Promoting privacy on tech platforms is fundamental to consumer autonomy.

When users have the choice to pick whichever platform they want, they have the opportunity to deepen their preferences for privacy and send a legitimate signal to tech companies. In an internet age, we must also shape a culture of education and awareness surrounding digital privacy issues, whether that’s in school, on social media or in the workplace. It is imperative that we commit to passing smart policy that meaningfully regulates tech companies’ utilization of user data while still promoting competition and innovation.

The rosy Google fantasy of headquarter nap pods makes recognizing the company’s harmful behavior an intellectual chore. The same applies to Facebook, Apple and Microsoft. But in an age of big-tech consciousness, debates surrounding solutions to address data privacy, disinformation, media echo chambers, teenage mental health decline and other threats will continue, particularly on the antitrust front.

“The trend of flexing antitrust law to account for quality harms is likely going to continue and be a bigger area of focus in the economy,” Srinivasan said.

While the birth of the internet sparked fantasies of a decentralized, democratic utopia through the spread of ideas and global exchange, we might be back at square one. It’s time to re-imagine an internet where human liberty is prioritized and preserved through honoring consumer preferences and hedging back against coercive and exclusionary business models.

Only then might I decide my privacy and autonomy outweighs Google’s pretty and infinite search bar.

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