Google May Be Biased, But Regulation Isn’t the Answer


Julian Adorney Julian Adorney is a writer and marketing consultant with the Foundation for Economic Education.
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On August 28, President Trump tweeted that his administration is considering regulating Google out of concern that the search engine is prioritizing liberal news sites over conservative alternatives.

Trump’s chief economic adviser, Larry Kudlow, said that the administration is “taking a look” at the possibility of regulating Google’s search results. Google represents a huge source of information for Americans, so conservatives are justified to worry about liberal bias in the search results. But regulation isn’t the answer.

Trump’s ire seems to stem from a report by conservative news site PJ Media, which recently claimed that Google’s search results are biased to favor liberal content. PJ Media’s editor, Paula Bolyard, googled “Trump,” filtered the results according to “News,” and analyzed the first 100 results.

The test, while far from scientific, yielded troubling results: “Not a single right-leaning site appeared on the first page of search results.” Of the top 100 sources, only five were from conservative outlets.

This may be the result of a liberal bias by Google. I say “may” because Google’s algorithm is famously opaque, so it’s hard to know for sure. As a Search Engine Optimization (SEO) specialist at Colorado SEO Pros, I interact with and study Google’s algorithm for a living. The algorithm has over 200 factors that influence results. And even after this algorithm ranks webpages, a second machine learning algorithm called RankBrain reranks them according to additional criteria.

Some of Google’s ranking factors are clear-cut, like the relevance of content to the search query and the prioritization of links from credible industry-related sites. Others are more subjective.

Google factors in expertise, authority, and trustworthiness when they’re ranking web pages. It’s possible that Google sees the left-leaning the Guardian as more of an expert or more trustworthy than the Wall Street Journal. This might explain why the Wall Street Journal doesn’t rank as highly for searches for Trump-related news.

But that’s just one of several explanations. Maybe the Guardian writes more about Trump and is seen as more of an expert for that reason, or they have incoming links from more websites or a more technically advanced website. This may well be the case, as Google denies that their search results are politically biased.

Riva Sciuto, a spokeswoman for Google, said, “Search is not used to set a political agenda, and we don’t bias our results toward any political ideology.”

Google may not be telling the truth — or they may be unaware of their own biases. Google’s team is pretty liberal. So much so that Eric Schmidt, then-executive chairman of Alphabet (Google’s parent company) assisted Hillary Clinton’s 2016 presidential campaign.

During the 2016 presidential election, Google employees donated almost $1.6 million to Clinton’s campaign but gave only $21,000 to Trump. When a team all thinks the same way politically, that echo chamber can give them a skewed sense of how trustworthy or accurate information from the other side is.

But the possibility of liberal bias doesn’t mean that we should regulate Google’s search results.

Google is a private platform, not a public good. As a matter of commercial freedom, Google should be able to do whatever they want with their proprietary software. Regulation would also violate Google’s First Amendment rights to promote whichever content it chooses.

As Floyd Abrams, author of “The Soul of the First Amendment,” puts it, “[Trump’s proposed regulation] would constitute a particularly egregious violation of the First Amendment.”

There actually is an example of a government regulating Google’s search results. In 2017, the European Commission fined Google the equivalent of $2.7 billion for prioritizing its own shopping service (Google Shopping) over those of competitors. When people searched ‘flip flops’ for example, ads for these shoes from Google Shopping tended to rank higher than pages from competing product search engines like Nextag and Foundem.

The Commission ruled that Google’s behavior was anti-competitive and unfair, and that Google needed to give, “equal treatment to rival comparison shopping services and its own service.” This is wrong-headed; companies have no obligation to give preferential advertising space to their competitors.

Does the conservative Trump administration really want to emulate the far-left European Commission?

We should also worry about the backlash of government regulation. Conservatives like Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas have pointed out that affirmative action can stigmatize even successful minorities.

For instance, Thomas argued that being black and graduating from Yale Law put him at a disadvantage when he was trying to find work as a lawyer. Firms refused to take his credentials seriously, thinking his grades may have been inflated to meet diversity quotas. According to Thomas, “Many asked pointed questions, unsubtly suggesting they doubted I was as smart as my grades indicated.”

We should worry about a similar future if Trump decides to regulate Google. Mainstream Americans might think that conservative media aren’t reputable in their own right since they need the government’s help to compete with liberal competitors.

Today, ranking highly on Google carries credibility in users’ eyes. The biggest losers of regulation could be insightful conservative sites like the Wall Street Journal and National Review, which already rank highly for many search terms on their own merits; as users stop trusting the validity of these rankings due to any new government interference.

Most troublingly, Trump’s proposal would make Google’s search results a political football. Who will determine whether or not Google is being “fair” to all sides of the political spectrum? The chairman of the Federal Communications Commission? Republicans might find this appealing today, but what happens when a Democrat is elected President and appoints a left-leaning chairman?

The presidency is a blatantly political institution, and partisanship filters down into executive branch appointments. We shouldn’t expect the executive branch to even try — let alone succeed — at balancing competing viewpoints.

If Google’s bias is, or becomes a problem, then it’s a problem that the free market is well-poised to handle. Google isn’t a monopoly. Competitors like Yahoo and Bing are still around, and there’s also ample room in the market for another new search engine if users become dissatisfied.

According to a Gallup poll from 2017, 35 percent of Americans identify as conservative. Pew Research Center, a non-partisan think-tank, found that “78 percent [of Americans] say the news media should never favor one political party over another.”

If Google is truly biased, then those numbers will lead to a substantial demand for a better service. An entrepreneur who built a competing search engine dedicated to sharing non-partisan, unbiased news could, therefore, expect a lot of support. So it’s clear that free market competition offers a better path forward to combatting any potential Google censorship than putting the government in charge of what news we see.

Julian Adorney is a Young Voices Contributor and senior SEO analyst with Colorado SEO Pros.

The views and opinions expressed in this commentary are those of the author and do not reflect the official position of The Daily Caller.