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Little did we suspect that Google’s collection of personal data and manipulation of search results was mere practice for the job of censoring, curating, and providing behavioral surveillance for repressive governments (more on search manipulation here and here). Actually, some of us have expressed trepidation that our own individual liberty might face such a vulnerability, with Google working in concert with our own government:

As a firm like Google attains the status of an arm of the state, or multiple states, it could provide a mechanism whereby those authorities could manipulate behavior and coerce their citizens, making the internet into a tool of tyranny rather than liberty. ‘Don’t be evil’ is not much of a guarantee.”

Now, however, the company is working with the government of mainland China to implement a version of its search engine that meets the needs of the Communist regime. J.D. Tuccille calls this “Privatized Authoritarianism”. Search results from Google’s Chinese utility might come back blank, or certain sites might be banned, or at least banned from the first page of results (e.g., Wikipedia, the BBC).

Not only that, the Chinese government is building a system of “social credit scores” for its citizens, essentially a one-number report card like the FICO credit score in the West. This one, however, is driven by more than financial transactions; it’s intended to account for a variety of behaviors including one’s record in criminal and civil matters, anything reflecting one’s “trustworthiness”, general comportment, and alignment with official doctrine. The country is building a gargantuan network of surveillance cameras with visual recognition technology and artificial intelligence that will be used to generate inputs to the social score. And Google’s Chinese search platform?

… users’ interest in pursuing forbidden paths of inquiry will certainly become part of their permanent record. That’s no joke in a country that’s rapidly modernizing the hoary old mechanisms of the police state with a modern ‘social credit’ system that can effectively place people under house arrest with nary a trench coat in sight.

‘A poor Chinese social credit score can lead to bans from travel, certain schools, luxury hotels, government positions, and even dating apps,’ notes the Brookings Institution. Liu Hu, an investigative journalist, incurred the Chinese government’s wrath for exposing corruption among Communist Party officials. He’s among millions who have been punished with a tanked social credit score that prevents him from easily working or even leaving his hometown.”

Political search activity is one thing. What happens if you search for information on foreign news sources? Certain medications or certain disfavored goods? Movies? Books? Sex? What are the consequences of actually clicking on a particular link in a search result? Could the governments place “honey pots” into search results? Could the system be used by the government to entrap citizens? You bet it could!

The Chinese government is everything a liberal should hate, classical or otherwise. But they do what they do. Google, which takes pride in its “do the right thing” mantra, is most certainly not doing the right thing by contributing to this intrusive effort. And it could happen here in the West. In fact, it is probably already happening here to some degree.

Google was fined $2.7 billion by the European Union in 2017 for biasing its search results in favor of its own services. That ruling was made on traditional antitrust grounds: the bias in search results was judged to have anti-competitive effects on the searched-for service markets. But apart from a direct connection to some other form of commerce, traditional antitrust arguments are difficult to make against a free search engine. The company has a high market share but by no means a monopoly over search results, at least in the U.S.

Still, a partnership between Google and government is potentially troublesome, and more so than run-of-the-mill corporatism, though there is that, too. Many individuals are blasé about managing their privacy on social media, while many others seek a level of anonymity to those outside of their social circle. The latter may be wise, but it won’t do them much good if the government gains access to their on-line behavior. The real issue is ownership of our personal information, and that is an unsettled area of the law. Google acquires that information for free in exchange for providing a free search engine. But can Google or any other company with an online platform legally use your personal data as it likes? No, at least not in principle, but that’s no guarantee that the data won’t be used in ways to which you’d object. If anyone should have rightful monopoly rights over the use of individual data, it’s the individual. But strict data privacy might mean we’ll have to pay to use the search engine.

Government has a monopoly on force, but one can hardly bring antitrust action against government, Google partnership or not. That monopoly on force is why our constitutional rights are so critical. Those rights are primarily unenumerated in the U.S. Constitution, while the powers of the federal government are explicitly limited and enumerated. Individual liberty, including the right to privacy, must be respected and protected by our institutions. That should include data privacy. As the reach of government social programs grows, however, participation requires that personal data is increasingly shared with the government. That’s another good reason to keep government small!