One of the key revelations in the last week or so has been that technology companies are not necessarily our friends when it comes to the best interests of society as a whole. As someone pointed out, the oligarchy of Google, Facebook and Apple have taken on the roles of gatekeeper for each other, occasionally deplatforming apps and other tools or revoking some level of access to data when one of their number crosses some line that results in a wave of negative press.
That’s a problematic situation for the rest of us considering this is all happening in an inconsistent manner, is often accompanied by instances of hypocritical double standards and is utterly opaque, free from scrutiny by the larger public, including governmental agencies and regulators. We don’t know *why* a decision has been made, a process that may be driven less by altruistic impulses and more by a desire to defend one’s own products and property.
Allowing a handful of private companies to have unrestricted control of how information is shared through the web is a situation custom designed for abuse in a way that, because it’s all happening without oversight, we’ll never know about until it’s too late. If you don’t believe that, remember how much of the public has no idea Facebook is collecting data specifically to store for use by advertisers.
No less dangerous are efforts by Google to diminish the role of the URL in the web experience.
That initiative is, of course, presented as being in the best interests of the average online user. A Google exec points out that URLs can be used by malicious actors to distribute spyware, spread disinformation and inflict other damage. Those are all legitimate concerns, of course, even if it conveniently ignores the role Google itself has played in the latter through YouTube recommendations that often descend quickly into Alt-Right propaganda.
Reducing the amount of visibility people have into what they’re consuming and experiencing is never the answer, even if it’s completely in-line with the kind of control these technology companies want to have over people’s online lives. Google, in this case, wants to put itself in the position of labeling what is or isn’t safe and trustworthy, seemingly with no recourse for someone who disagrees or whose site has been labeled as dangerous, if it’s not blocked completely.
The paternalistic mindset required to see basic URL literacy as “advanced knowledge of how the internet works” is astounding. URLs are the foundation of the web and largely have been, though they have admittedly changed and evolved over the years. Still, they allow the average user to see where they are on the web and made decisions for themselves.
Reigning in bad actors is a laudable goal and people too often fall for fake sites made to look like CNN.com or something. But just like street signs allow you to see where you are in a city, URLs allow you to get a sense of location and make decisions based on unbiased information.
The danger here is that much like corporations and private donors have relabeled building addresses as “One [Corporation Name] Plaza” and renamed streets after influential individuals, the web will actually become harder to navigate if URLs are removed from the equation.
As usual, this campaign by Google can’t be fully evaluated or considered in and of itself. Instead it has to be viewed in the context of both corporate consolidation and the recent rollback of net neutrality safeguards. Both of those combine to create an environment where fewer companies have more control over our media diets and other aspects of our daily lives while allowing fewer independent voices to break through the filter. That effort, funded largely by groups with a vested interest in its removal, has had to date none of the benefits the FCC and its patrons promised it would but will likely have many of the downsides, including creating tiered online experiences controlled by wireless providers and other companies.
So imagine running a Google search in Chrome, which currently has 71 percent of the browser market, and finding that certain sites are placed in a “trusted sources” section. That’s not bad, right? Except how did they get there? Are they the result of a paid relationship like what powers retail recommendations? Or are they actually based on some kind of objective truth and deliberation?
Without some transparency into the process we’ll never know, instead finding ourselves in an environment where the big are becoming bigger because they can afford the kind of deals smaller startups and challengers can’t. But because we’re being told to keep quiet, the adults are here to protect us we have no way to challenge the decisions being made, supposedly, on our behalf.