Run the term “current events” through the Google search engine and more than six billion items instantaneously appear, selected and ranked by an algorithm that substitutes for what journalists have traditionally called “news judgment.” Whether that opaque process of automated judgment is fair, accurate and objective is indeed an important question.
But it’s not a question that should be probed by government regulators simply on allegations that Google has “rigged” the process in order to cough up a disproportionate amount of “negative” news about the Trump administration, as the president has alleged.
Utah Sen. Orrin Hatch says his call for a Federal Trade Commission investigation into Google’s search engine and advertising practices is coincidental to the president’s claims of bias. Indeed, the senator seeksto reopen an investigation first launched in 2013, which did not specifically inquire as to how Google populates its news feeds. It focused more on antitrust concerns regarding advertising and commercial operations.
While Google — by virtue of its tremendous influence — should be accountable for how it selects the news that Americans consume, any efforts to force the company to alter its process in one way or another would tread dangerously on the edges of the First Amendment. The framers of the Constitution could not have envisioned a news delivery system capable of scanning billions of published words in nanoseconds, but they made it clear that news and information should be able to flow unobstructed to the people, who can decide on their own if the source of the information is reliable.
Citizens of one political persuasion or another may quickly perceive bias in any news article they find antithetical to their beliefs. That is on the user, not the producer or those who deliver the product, assuming the creator of the content followed the traditional journalistic values of balance and objectivity. Certainly, bias can creep into news copy, but discerning consumers should be able to detect it and act toward that information source accordingly. Any kind of screening process imposed on news feeds by government regulation would be arbitrary, subject to abuse and most likely unconstitutional — not to mention unnecessary.
Claims of bias in Google’s news functions distract from more important questions, including how the online juggernaut protects user privacy in the collection of data. The company recently came under fire for allegedly allowing third-party vendors to scan personal email sent through its gmail platform. While there’s no apparent evidence of discrimination as a result of ideological bias when it comes to news content, there is reason for concern that Google’s many functions are biased toward the company’s own commercial interests, which could lead it to act in a way that discriminates against certain parties. Because of its sheer enormity and dominance in the online world, Google should be regularly scrutinized for possible antitrust violations.
In that regard, the FTC probe Sen. Hatch has summoned is certainly justified, if only to force more transparency from the company. As for its news functions, Google and others in the world of disseminating information can argue that bias is in the eye of the beholder. Nevertheless, it’s critical that consumers are confident the information they are getting is coming to them through a process free from any malicious manipulation.