The internet is dominated by a handful of big names, but with great power comes great responsibility. On the internet more than anywhere this responsibility is one of ensuring certain freedoms; and as the internet provides a soapbox with potentially global reach, the most important of these is freedom of speech. But is this being guaranteed?
Companies like Alphabet (the parent company of Google and YouTube) and Facebook have a stranglehold on the information many internet users receive; from the websites we’re guided to, to the advertisements we see, to which news articles we perceive major events through. These companies could potentially shape the world-views of their users by simply guiding them towards certain content and away from others. While these sites may not be able to stop things from being said, they can certainly stop things from being heard.
In the case of Google, search results on their first page enjoy 95% of clicks, meaning if there is a news article or other result that google doesn’t favour, all it would need to do is bump it to the second page and 19 out of every 20 people who search the relevant keywords will not find it.
YouTube has a similar capability: their trending page has the ability to make viral videos reach a global audience, yet many users have observed videos with relatively few views making it onto the trending page, while others with much more do not, leading to some to speculate that YouTube is favouring certain content while leaving others by the wayside.
Google is a company which has been revealed to have a strong political bias among its staff, which erupted in huge controversy when James Damore released a memo accusing Google of enforcing this bias in its hiring and promotion methods, claiming that White, conservative males were discriminated against while women and those from minority groups were favoured. This controversy has arisen once again as it has been revealed that James Damore is now suing Google on charges of unlawful discrimination.
Facebook is another website with the power to steer national conversation, as 60% of their users reported that they use the site as their primary source of news. However the social media giant is not free from controversy, as it was revealed by ex-employees that Facebook supressed news that favoured conservatives from their own Trending tab.
In the face of what seems to be intentional mismanagement of the responsibility to ensure the internet remains a bastion of free speech and intellectual diversity, it may be time to regulate companies with huge influence to ensure that freedom of thought prevails. Although with states like Germany doing the exact opposite, by legislating to force Facebook to remove what its government defines as hate speech, it’s hard to remain optimistic about the future of the greatest medium of information exchange mankind has produced. At least the memes are good, right?