There’s no other way to put it: Google is a monopoly. The Silicon Valley giant controls 93 percent of global search traffic and more than 60 percent of global browser usage. Nearly 90 percent of smartphones use the company’s Android operating system. It is the fourth largest company in the world with an $860 billion market cap.
Now, Google is thinking even bigger. The company has devised a plan to give themselves unprecedented power over the flow of information. But not only will this put our precious freedom at risk, it may also specifically undermine efforts to keep children safe online.
Here’s the background: Google has announced that they will soon start changing the way users are connected to websites through its Chrome browser, using a new protocol called DNS over HTTPS (DoH). The domain name system (DNS) serves as the internet’s phone book, which matches a domain name of a website (for example, DailyCaller.com) with the IP address of the server hosting the site. Although it’s not a perfect system, for years it has allowed billions of users to access web content, and many useful tools have been built around it. But now, Google’s change is threatening to upend all this, giving the company more control in the process.
The consequences are potentially significant. This change would open the door to a completely centralized internet, where a few isolated ideologues in California will have the power to determine what content can and cannot be viewed all over the United States. Sound familiar? Totalitarian governments around the globe, most notoriously China, have taken significant steps to censor their internet — and now we’re handing all that power to Google and hoping for the best.
Google claims this shift is about privacy and data security, not centralization, and that its control over DNS wouldn’t pose a threat to the freedom of its users. Google also claims that it won’t force DoH on its Chrome users — at least for the moment. But unfortunately, we are relying solely on the good faith of a company that has already begun censoring individuals and ideas that it deems outside the mainstream via its search engine and also its YouTube platform.
This shift to DoH also hurts the ability of parents to self-regulate the technology within their own home. Many of the most widely used and formidable tools used to protect children online are built on top of DNS information. These tools make it possible to detect and avoid dangerous sites, including sites that host child sexual abuse material, in an effort to keep children safe while aiding law enforcement to go after predators.
Given the horrifying scope of the child pornography crisis revealed in New York Times reporting, these tools are needed now more than ever. “As with hate speech and terrorist propaganda, many tech companies failed to adequately police sexual abuse imagery on their platforms, or failed to cooperate sufficiently with the authorities when they found it,” the Times concluded.
Against this backdrop, it is shocking that Google is imposing its risky new DoH regime before thoroughly testing it to ensure parental controls and online child safety tools are ready for the transition. Their imminent changes could render “opt in” tools ineffective while completely bypassing tools baked into networks run by schools, businesses and service providers.
How serious is the risk? In a recent letter to Congress, 20 child safety advocates warned that Google “[has] failed to prioritize child safety by not adequately accounting for the potential unintended consequences” of their plan. Sadly, Google has shrugged off the concerns, offering vague assurances of their untested technology.
This isn’t the first time Google has tried to implement this scheme. Just a few months ago it, along with Mozilla, tried to force this regime on the U.K., but advocacy groups and regulators raised the same safety concerns over child sexual abuse images and terrorist content. Unable to answer government regulators who demanded fixes, Mozilla said it would instead test DoH in the U.S. It seems Google is quietly doing the same, flaws and all.
Americans deserve the same level of protection from online predators, criminals and terrorist extremism as any other country — especially when it comes to our children. There’s no reason Google can’t hit pause until they’ve worked out reasonable solutions that address the important concerns that have been raised. After all, a collaborative, consensus-driven approach is what gave rise to the DNS system as we know it; why should Google abandon that now?
Unless, of course, there is an ulterior motive. As The Wall Street Journal reported, “the new standard could alter the web’s competitive landscape” given Google’s sheer dominance of the web browsing market through Chrome and the smartphone market through Android. That’s enough to make anyone question the motives of Google’s sudden rush when you consider the potential domination of consumers’ online browsing histories and related data.
Fortunately, congressional antitrust investigators are now scrutinizing Google’s DoH plans given the tech giant’s “vast troves of consumer data because of its domination of search” that could be combined with its exclusive knowledge of what websites Americans visit through centralized DNS.
But time is running out. With just weeks to go before Google begins to seize control over even larger volumes of user data, lawmakers and state attorneys general need to tell Google to hit pause while they wait for answers on these critical questions — both about monopolistic control over the free flow of information and about the safety of our children online.
Terry Schilling (@Schilling1776) is the executive director at American Principles Project, a conservative nonprofit dedicated to putting human dignity at the heart of public policy.
The views and opinions expressed in this commentary are those of the author and do not reflect the official position of The Daily Caller.