The United States of Google

"One Nation, under search, with optimization and compatibility for all."

Mar 1, 2020, 5:13 am*

Internet Culture

Chris Osterndorf 

Chris Osterndorf

“I pledge allegiance to the Flag of the United States of Google. And to the Republic, for which it stands, one Nation, under search, with optimization and compatibility for all.”

This sentiment might not be a reality yet, but Google is getting closer to it every day. Case in point, it was announced this week that Google now spends more money on lobbying than any other company in the U.S.. In effect, this means that Google has more footing in the American political process than any other single industry or special interest group today.

When it comes to influence, Google has now reached a point where comparing it to other major corporations hardly seems fair. On a grand scale, Google doesn’t even merit mention in conversations about traditional companies. If anything, the latest news about its lobbying efforts reinforces the idea that when we talk about Google, we might as well be talking about Google as a country of its own.

The concept of corporate sovereignty is a very real thing, but when talking about the power of Google, you have to look outside of the financial sector. That said, here are the basics: Over the last few years, Google and Apple have been racing to a $1 trillion evaluation. Though Google has been widely predicted to get there first, as of this year, Apple is worth $700 billion, having greatly surpassed Google’s $364.99 billion valuation. Meanwhile, with other tech giants like Facebook valued around $200 billion, it should come as a surprise to no one that many of these companies’ wealth sizably outweighs that of actual sovereign nations.

This money hasn’t just given these companies sway over policy-making at home. And that’s precisely why the European Union has decided to “go to war” with many of these tech giants.

When we talk about Google, we might as well be talking about Google as a country of its own.

Recently, the EU accused Google of violating competition law. The basis of their complaint breaks down to three issues. Their first problem with Google, and most evident, is the way the company has essentially monopolized the search engine. This is in direct opposition of the EU’s emphasis on creating a wide economic playing field, where various companies can compete to strengthen the overall market. 

Secondly, the EU is concerned American tech innovation is pushing out potential tech innovation that might arise in Europe. The EU wants its own tech companies to be able to compete on the same level as American ones, and with the presence of juggernauts like Google, there is little room for this to happen. Lastly, and perhaps most significantly, the EU is concerned with the way the political interests of Silicon Valley could interfere with the political interests of the region. In Google’s case, we’ve already seen examples of this become evident.

To understand the EU’s Google paranoia, one needs look no further than China. Google’s history of aiding and abetting Chinese authorities in censoring search results has long been a controversial issue. However, that began to change in 2010, when Google ceased this partnership with China, much to the country’s chagrin. 

Although the company’s own recollection of these events is unsurprisingly spotty, this was a historic moment not only for Google and China, but for the intersection of geopolitical struggles and technological innovation around the world. In the midst of the fallout, Fast Company’s Kit Eagon reasoned that “this almost makes it seem like Google’s behaving with the same diplomatic grace and guile of a real nation.”

In one sense, this was a righteous step for Google, demonstrating that they knew how to put its foot down in the face of toxic regimes. But in another sense, it was a scary moment, too. After all, do we really want Google to be more effective than the U.S. itself when it comes to dealing with tyrants? 

In this light, it’s no wonder that the EU has expressed concern over Google’s growing sphere of influence. For his part, Eagon warranted that the development was “amusing, given the slightly fudged and hands-off handling the actual U.S. government is exhibiting in its dealings with this case—demonstrated neatly by a new official State Department report that condemns China’s ‘numerous and serious’ rights abuses, but which is merely a paper threat.” Eagon goes on to conclude his essay by wondering, “Does Google have more direct impact on human rights and freedoms in China than the Obama Administration?”

Do we really want Google to be more effective than the U.S. itself when it comes to dealing with tyrants? 

In the years since this fallout, China has continued to flex its muscle against Google and Silicon Valley, shutting down Gmail, along with blocking access to Twitter, YouTube, Facebook, and Instagram. It’s important to remember, though, that companies like Google aren’t just injecting themselves into the politics of China and Europe, but that these companies also reside at the epicenter of social injustice here. The knowledge that Silicon Valley was aware of NSA data collection is chilling. But in some ways, what’s even scarier is the thought of how much American tech giants know about us without the help of U.S. law enforcement. 

Forget about privacy violations on the part of the American government: Now that these companies have all of our secrets, what could Silicon Valley do with them on its own?

Of course, it’s already become clear what they could do. Apple wants to take over our lives through the company’s seamless integration of products. And Facebook wants dominate the digital experience by becoming the gateway to the entire Internet

But in terms of global conquest, the difference between these companies and Google is twofold. The first is that, contrary to what you may believe, not everyone uses Apple and Facebook. Using Apple and Facebook requires a choice. Apple’s brand remains immensely popular among its many devotees. For Facebook users, the choice is more of a shrug—often born out of complacency, and unwillingness to change habits they’ve had for years. However, with Google, there’s virtually no choice at all. Its dominance as the preferred search engine of the world is so overwhelming, the few alternatives to Google that are available might as well not exist at all.   

The second reason Google’s global impact is greater than that of its peers is that Google has already found themselves in the middle of more geopolitical disputes than any other company in the history of Silicon Valley. Take Europe’s notorious “Right to Be Forgotten” case, for instance. It wasn’t about Twitter, Facebook, or anywhere else on the Internet. Instead, it was Google’s role in the matter that the decision really hinged upon.

What’s even scarier is the thought of how much American tech giants know about us without the help of U.S. law enforcement. 

With all this power, it makes sense that Google CEO Larry Page has joked about starting his own country before. Others have also wondered why companies like Google don’t just buy a country of their own. But for all the physical, financial, and other practical reasons associated with why they haven’t (yet), the most likely reason is that Google doesn’t need to be its own country in name to exact its will as a sovereign nation. Examining what the country of “Googlestan” might look like, Extreme Tech’s Sebastian Anthony speculates based on what we know about its future plans right now.

You will drive to work (or rather be driven to work) by your Google car. Your home and office will be automated by Google—and literally powered by Google’s green energy technology. When you’re not talking to your car or home, your computing will be done through a wearable Google computer. The streets will be policed, industry will be automated, and possibly even wars will be fought with Google robots. It’s hard to say with any kind of certainty, but Google also has tendrils in academia and government. It’s not entirely impossible that, in the future, whole countries will be powered by Google.

We’re a long way off from from Googlestan spreading its wings and controlling other nations with its vast reach. But consider this: The essay you are currently reading was researched with the power of Google’s search engine. It was written with the power of Google Docs. It was emailed to someone else through the power of Gmail. And when you are done reading it, if you decide to travel along the Internet in a quest to find something else, statistics indicate that you will be using Google to do it. None of these attributes does a country make, but compacted with Google’s various political interests on a global scale, it’s a start. In the end, its sheer ubiquity is what makes the Google nation look alarmingly possible.

So don’t bother worrying about Google’s massive lobbying power in the U.S. Worry about its massive political power around the world.

Photo via DonkeyHotey/Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

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*First Published: Apr 23, 2015, 12:39 pm