Economy & Business

Google, Facebook, and the ‘Creepy Line’

(Dado Ruvic/Reuters)
A new documentary reveals how much deeply personal information Google has on all of us.

On Google, I just typed in “top races Republican,” and the word “races” got a squiggly underline suggesting I had misspelled the word. Beneath it ran Google’s helpful correction: “top racist Republican.” With “top races Democrat,” no such veering into the gutter. No squiggly line. The word “racist” did not insinuate itself into my field of vision. Oh, and before I completed the phrase, with just “top races Democra,” two lines below ran the following little hint: “best Democratic races to donate to.” Huh? Who said anything about donating? I’ve never donated to a political candidate in my life, and if I did, I wouldn’t donate to Democrats. Again, no parallel on the Republican side. No steering me to fundraisers.

The documentary The Creepy Line takes its name from a shockingly unguarded remark by the former Google CEO Eric Schmidt. He is smiling and relaxed in a conference as he explains that Google has (had?) a nickname for excessive invasiveness. “Google policy on a lot of these things,” Schmidt says, “is to get right up to the creepy line and not cross it.”

How is that going so far? The Creepy Line, a terrifying and important 80-minute documentary now streaming on Amazon Prime, is an attempt to answer that question.

The film delves into some of the troubling habits of our two Internet masters, Facebook and especially Google. An early segment of the film, produced and partly narrated by the journalist Peter Schweizer, illustrates how your search history gives Google an enormous, permanent cache of information about you, everything from what things you like to buy to what you like in bed. Naturally Google uses the data mainly to fine-tune ad sales. But what else might they do with it? Who knows?

Google, noticing that people would leave the search engine to roam the Internet, came up with a browser, Chrome. Now everything you do online through Chrome is logged by Google. But Google wants to know what you’re doing even when you’re not online. Hence: Android. As soon as you log on, Android uploads a complete picture of everywhere your phone has been that day. “These are all free services but obviously they’re not,” notes professor Jordan Peterson, another talking head in the doc. It’s a surveillance business model. Google Maps, Google Docs, Gmail . . . Google knows more about you than your spouse does. It even has drafts of emails you didn’t send. Oh, and they have the power to block information from reaching you too. Just by bumping undesirable stuff to the second page of search, Google can more or less make it disappear. Hey, good thing Google doesn’t have any overt political or cultural preferences you might not agree with, right? Peterson says Google shut off access to his Gmail and his YouTube channel when the corporation decided it didn’t like what he was saying. Ten minutes into the movie, you’ll pause it and switch all of your devices to non-Google search engines. (Try DuckDuckGo, which vows not to track you and also promises unbiased search results.)

Facebook has become the No. 1 source of news for Americans, and has already been revealed to censor conservative news items and downplay trending stories that were favorable to conservatives. Engineers also said they were inserting stories into the news feed that they preferred people to see. Facebook could influence elections invisibly by sending out messages only to certain individuals urging them to get out and register to vote. Even the Guardian used the term “Orwellian” to describe Facebook’s tactics. But as the tech guru and author Jaron Lanier notes, we’re not citizens of Facebook, so we have no vote in how it runs, no access to the details about how it decides what information to show us. There is no transparency about what’s going on.

Between them, Google and Facebook are effectively a duopoly with unprecedented influence over American lives and minds. The federal government is, meanwhile, a heavy user of Google products, and has shown little interest in oversight. We’ve only begun to take notice of the way the state is merging with the most powerful corporations. Psychologist and Google critic Robert Epstein found that, by sheer coincidence, the day after he wrote an article called “Could Google Tilt a Close Election?” he couldn’t access the Internet through any browser. An especially chilling passage shows Epstein explaining how his research shows that manipulation of search algorithms to favor a given candidate could easily shift people’s voting intentions, with few noticing the bias. He suspects such manipulation in searches for Hillary Clinton during the 2016 campaign, which Google has denied.

“If they have this kind of power then democracy is an illusion,” says Epstein (who describes himself as apolitical but allows that he thought Clinton was a more qualified presidential candidate than Donald Trump). “There have to be in place numerous safeguards to make sure not only that they don’t exercise these powers but that they can’t exercise these powers.” Adds Schweizer, “These tech giants have a level of control and an ability to manipulate us that Stalin, Mao, Hitler, and Mussolini could only have dreamed of.”

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