search engines and authoritarian threats

by Sebastian Benthall

I’ve been intrigued by Daniel Griffin’s tweets lately, which have been about situating some upcoming work of his an Deirdre Mulligan’s regarding the experience of using search engines. There is a lively discussion lately about the experience of those searching for information and the way they respond to misinformation or extremism that they discover through organic use of search engines and media recommendation systems. This is apparently how the concern around “fake news” has developed in the HCI and STS world since it became an issue shortly after the 2016 election.

I do not have much to add to this discussion directly. Consumer misuse of search engines is, to me, analogous to consumer misuse of other forms of print media. I would assume to best solution to it is education in the complete sense, and the problems with the U.S. education system are, despite all good intentions, not HCI problems.

Wearing my privacy researcher hat, however, I have become interested in a different aspect of search engines and the politics around them that is less obvious to the consumer and therefore less popularly discussed, but I fear is more pernicious precisely because it is not part of the general imaginary around search. This is the aspect that is around the tracking of search engine activity, and what it means for this activity to be in the hands of not just such benevolent organizations such as Google, but also such malevolent organizations such as Bizarro World Google*.

Here is the scenario, so to speak: for whatever reason, we begin to see ourselves in a more adversarial relationship with search engines. I mean “search engine” here in the broad sense, including Siri, Alexa, Google News, YouTube, Bing, Baidu, Yandex, and all the more minor search engines embedded in web services and appliances that do something more focused than crawl the whole web. By ‘search engine’ I mean entire UX paradigm of the query into the vast unknown of semantic and semiotic space that contemporary information access depends on. In all these cases, the user is at a systematic disadvantage in the sense that their query is a data point amount many others. The task of the search engine is to predict the desired response to the query and provide it. In return, the search engine gets the query, tied to the identity of the user. That is one piece of a larger mosaic; to be a search engine is to have a picture of a population and their interests and the mandate to categorize and understand those people.

In Western neoliberal political systems the central function of the search engine is realized as commercial transaction facilitating other commercial transactions. My “search” is a consumer service; I “pay” for this search by giving my query to the adjoined advertising function, which allows other commercial providers to “search” for me, indirectly, through the ad auction platform. It is a market with more than just two sides. There’s the consumer who wants information and may be tempted by other information. There are the primary content providers, who satisfy consumer content demand directly. And there are secondary content providers who want to intrude on consumer attention in a systematic and successful way. The commercial, ad-enabled search engine reduces transaction costs for the consumer’s search and sells a fraction of that attentional surplus to the advertisers. Striking the right balance, the consumer is happy enough with the trade.

Part of the success of commercial search engines is the promise of privacy in the sense that the consumer’s queries are entrusted secretly with the engine, and this data is not leaked or sold. Wise people know not to write into email things that they would not want in the worst case exposed to the public. Unwise people are more common than wise people, and ill-considered emails are written all the time. Most unwise people do not come to harm because of this because privacy in email is a de facto standard; it is the very security of email that makes the possibility of its being leaked alarming.

So to with search engine queries. “Ask me anything,” suggests the search engine, “I won’t tell”. “Well, I will reveal your data in an aggregate way; I’ll expose you to selective advertising. But I’m a trusted intermediary. You won’t come to any harms besides exposure to a few ads.”

That is all a safe assumption until it isn’t, at which point we must reconsider the role of the search engine. Suppose that, instead of living in a neoliberal democracy where the free search for information was sanctioned as necessary for the operation of a free market, we lived in an authoritarian country organized around the principle that disloyalty to the state should be crushed.

Under these conditions, the transition of a society into one that depends for its access to information on search engines is quite troubling. The act of looking for information is a political signal. Suppose you are looking for information about an extremist, subversive ideology. To do so is to flag yourself as a potential threat of the state. Suppose that you are looking for information about a morally dubious activity. To do so is to make yourself vulnerable to kompromat.

Under an authoritarian regime, curiosity and free thought are a problem, and a problem that are readily identified by ones search queries. Further, an authoritarian regime benefits if the risks of searching for the ‘wrong’ thing are widely known, since it suppresses inquiry. Hence, the very vaguely announced and, in fact, implausible to implement Social Credit System in China does not need to exist to be effective; people need only believe it exists for it to have a chilling and organizing effect on behavior. That is the lesson of the Foucouldean panopticon: it doesn’t need a guard sitting in it to function.

Do we have a word for this function of search engines in an authoritarian system? We haven’t needed one in our liberal democracy, which perhaps we take for granted. “Censorship” does not apply, because what’s at stake is not speech but the ability to listen and learn. “Surveillance” is too general. It doesn’t capture the specific constraints on acquiring information, on being curious. What is the right term for this threat? What is the term for the corresponding liberty?

I’ll conclude with a chilling thought: when at war, all states are authoritarian, to somebody. Every state has an extremist, subversive ideology that it watches out for and tries in one way or another to suppress. Our search queries are always of strategic or tactical interest to somebody. Search engine policies are always an issue of national security, in one way or another.