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Is Google the same as the internet?

Over the past year, I’ve written about various scams that presented harm to millions of internet users. Additionally, I’ve discussed the numerous methods that would-be bad guys use to attempt to compromise your technology and identify. I’ve mentioned a few times how easy it is to create “fake” news and confuse social media users with “alternative” facts.

I was shopping last Saturday in town when I overheard something that bothered me. Some folks were discussing whether or not they should purchase the Google Home device and, if they did, how useful the device would be. One of the people mentioned how great the “OK Google” feature is on their phone and thought that having the same feature readily-available throughout the house would be handy. The parting statement from one of the crowd was what grabbed my attention and bothered me.

“You can find everything with Google,” the fellow declared as he walked away.

I doubt the group would have appreciated a commentary from a guy who was basically eavesdropping on their holiday gift discussion. So here it is for you.

Google isn’t the internet, nor the Internet. It’s a participant in our collection of connected devices and services.

However, I think it’s fair to state that Google probably is the internet for many users. And perhaps, we need to review what that means, and determine if concern is warranted.

Google was founded 20 years ago. The company sprang forward from mathematical roots, from an effort by two doctoral students who wanted to go beyond indexing the ever-growing collection of websites on the internet and create a better way of “searching” for content. I recall my first interactions with Google – I was fascinated. For several years, I bought an annual ‘Internet Yellow Pages’ book. The book was a tiny fragment of content and I was disappointed when I discovered that the book was actually a sophisticated advertisement technique: companies paid to have their websites listed in the annual yellow pages. Sound familiar?  Yet, the promise of searching for meaningful content, not just clever website names, intrigued me.

Nonetheless, 20 years ago, Google ushered in a new idea about search. The mathematics behind the search process were not new; Google employed a process they referred to a “pagerank.” In very basic terms, the more times a link to the same site was observed, it could be concluded that the page was more popular and credible, therefore, it appeared higher in the search results. Years of refinement has occurred to the search processes, and now many people visit or interact with Google and immediately have the answer.

But, what is that answer? Is it correct? Is it factual? Is it biased?

Well, I’d offer that most agree that Google, or any other search engine, performs perfectly for straightforward questions. “Hey Google, what’s 2 plus 2?”

Where things become more challenging is where Google interrupts our lives more frequently and deeper than one would have imagined 20 years ago. We present complex and personal questions to search engines. “Who should I vote for?”

Visit google.com. It looks almost identical to what was presented 20 years ago. That is not an accident. The company continues to present a simple, unobtrusive search box, despite the substantial difference in its operations. Once search results are presented, we witness the changes. Carefully-crafted advertisements almost masquerade as the top results of your search. Sidebars reveal other advertisements. The most popular web browser in the world, Chrome, constantly monitors what you visit. Arguably, the most popular mobile-operating system in the world, Android, powers cellular phones, smart TV’s, other appliances – all under the watchful eye of Google (ABC).

Google has penetrated many users’ interactions with electronics and the ever-present Internet.  What you browse, what you watch, with whom you interact, where you go, are all inventoried and cataloged by a company whose mathematical prowess is nearly amazing. I’d offer that for the Google enthusiast, the company has a very good idea of what you will do before you know.

But is Google the internet?

Sadly, for many, the answer is yes.

Despite efforts to keep bias out of its search engines, it’s not possible, especially when the algorithms that manage the search are created by people. In any human-designed environment, bias will be exhibited. Furthermore, Google’s tools learn from its users – our own biases influence search and search results. And, let’s not forget, Google is a company; in fact, Google is the world’s largest internet advertising company.

It’s important that we all realize that these search engines, including Google, are not perfect.  They are not custodians of neutral, unbiased technologies that present perfect answers to your inquiries.

Google representatives have acknowledged that the potential for bias in search results exists.  In particular, search results for recent and very active events has great opportunity to pollute search results and promote “fake” news, or more precisely, the search engines can favor misinformation and blatant rumors if the content is recent and very popular.

Discussions need to be held about what these technologies do and don’t do.  Public awareness is crucial. So is Google the internet? Well, ask Google.

William Greg Price is the Chief Technology and Security officer for Troy University and the Director of the Alabama Computer Forensics Institute. He currently represents District 2 on the Pike County Board of Education.