Skip to content

How Internet Monopolies Are Destroying the Web

2017 December 6
by Ian Welsh

The actual enemy of entrenched interests is not the right, or “Russia” (a country with half the GDP of California), it is the left, who are the people who would tax them and break their power.

Thus, it is not surprising that when Google decided to attack “fake news” they hit the left.

The estimated declines in traffic generated by Google searches for news sites are striking:

I have noticed declines in my own search traffic, though I’m a bit player.

The left, in general, favors high tax rates and either very strict regulation of large corporations or breaking them up. Google, certainly, needs to be broken up, at the least back into its constituent parts (i.e., sever the search engine from everything else.)

But Google is a particularly bad actor: For years it has been evident to everyone in the space that they are hoovering up most of ad revenue. In the early 00s, until 2006/7 it was fairly easy for relatively small websites to make money from ads. That went away as Google cornered much of the market and it’s only gotten worse since then.

Google’s relationship to web sites is almost identical to railroads and farmers in the 19th and early 20th century: Without railroad shipping, farmer’s products couldn’t make it to market, so the railroads set rates that maximized their profit, driving many farms into bankruptcy and keeping most in penury. They took virtually all of the profit.

For smaller, and even mediums-sized web sites Google (and Facebook, to a lesser degree) are in the same position. They determine who gets traffic, especially to newer web sites without established audiences. Because without them you get little to nothing, they get the money.

That means, in effect, that Google and Facebook and other similar companies, exist by taking away the value of other people’s labor–value without which they would have no business or profits. The web’s content comes first; Google’s “finding” it comes second.

There is a lot of gloating in the tech world about how good they are with information, but the basic information problem has not been fixed. Finding what you want or need or what would suit you best is really hard when there are so many options, and no one has figured out how to do it.

This is, at least in part, a matter of incentives. It is in Google’s interest to match you to whatever site benefits Google most, not the site that benefits you most. Just as Amazon doesn’t show everyone the cheapest alternatives for their search (if you can pay more, why show you cheap?), Google wants to make money for Google, and serving you is only important to the extent it makes them money.

As Google has gotten older, it feels as if their results have gotten worse, because they are now in a monopoly situation in most Western countries. People use Google to search, there is no major alternative.

Unregulated monopolies are bad. Unregulated, bundled monopolies are worse (as in, Google and Facebook buying up other market dominant firms, like YouTube).

This problem, combined with the FCC getting rid of network neutrality, is going to destroy a ton of livelihoods (no, not such money as I get from donors; I’m grandfathered in). It has already made the net far less interesting. Every year more stuff is on the Web, yeah, but it’s more mainstream commercial stuff. The weird web of the 90s and early 00s withers.

And it withers because it is in the interest of almost every big actor, from Facebook to Google to the major ISPs, that it does so. They don’t all have identical interests, no, but they all want a Web where either everyone pays a toll, or you have to go to them to get a specific type of content.


The results of the work I do, like this article, are free, but food isn’t, so if you value my work, please DONATE or SUBSCRIBE.

31 Responses leave one →
  1. Emma permalink
    December 6, 2017

    I don’t know why Russia needed to be in quotes; again, while I’m not saying any of the shit that’s happened in the U.S. recently is the result of nefarious Russian supervillains countervailing our natural national goodness with queasy Oriental subtlety, I’m not sure the kind of ratfucking Russia is accused of requires either a massive budget or a master plan. Or Russianness specifically. I think most of the worst parts of the political landscape right now — the “tax plan,” the threat to “entitlements,” the revocation of DACA, challenges to the civil rights of minorities, etc. would’ve still happened, and maybe been worse, under a regular non-controversial Republican president. Not that Trump isn’t an offense to life itself, of course! But I would put up with a thousand-pound Archie Bunker impersonator in the White House saying dumb, crude, old-man things for a million years straight if I thought the poor and the old and the needy would be protected from the rich and the powerful. That’s the real problem, for me.

    But Google’s anti-left ratfucking is also a pressing threat; I’m trying to clear them completely out of my life, but it’s difficult. I got in before I knew they were a tentacled monstrosity, and extricating myself is proving to be harder than I thought (all my contact with the federal government is managed under a Gmail adress + my proper name, for example). Just keep trying. I’ve also been using DuckDuckGo exclusively for the last year or so, and I switched to Firefox. A show of symbolic virtue, of course, until America can put some actual progressives in the position to do something about the real problem. We did it once, and it worked! Mostly. Americans can’t have gotten that much stupider in the last 98 years.

  2. realitychecker permalink
    December 6, 2017

    OT, with apologies, but this is too good not to share: http://www.foxnews.com/politics/2017/12/06/turnabout-why-trump-gop-leaders-are-now-backing-roy-moore.html

    Including the “Best” comments lol.

    Now I will read the post. 🙂

    (Note: I suck at making links, this is a Fox News article linked on Drudge today, detailing a Matt Lauer roast in 2008–unbelievable stuff, validated by Village Voice reporting.)

  3. realitychecker permalink
    December 6, 2017

    “Americans can’t have gotten that much stupider in the last 98 years.”

    Of course they have, dear Emma, since the advent of moving screens in 1950, the opportunities to dumb down the public have been legion. It’s all about flash emotional reactions now, i.e., ‘my feelings.’

    That is why we can’t ‘reason’ our way out of this mess.

    We will have to consider other strategies.

    Excellent post, Ian, love your very apt railroad analogy, reminds me that the fraudulent idea of “corporate personhood” arose from an 1870 railroad case at SCOTUS (Santa Clara County v. Southern Pacific, 1870, iirc.)

    What ingenious device will arise from the Google situation? One can only shudder at the possibilities.

    Query: Why is it so difficult for the general public to understand that capitalism is supposed to be, in its essence, about competition, so monopolies are always going in the wrong direction?

  4. December 6, 2017

    “Americans can’t have gotten that much stupider in the last 98 years.”

    Movies and television utterly stultify the brain which, like any organ, requires exercise to maintain its ability to function. When reading a book, one’s mind has to create the imagry from the written word. The characters are as the reader’s imagination defines them, the scenery is written in the reader’s mind, the facial expressions exist only insofar as the reader is able to make them exist.

    When watching a movie, or a television show, the viewer’s mind does nothing. The characters, scenery, facial expressions are all shown to the viewer.

    An unused mind becomes stupid, and over the past decades our children have grown up watching television rather than reading. Minds have stultified from disuse.

  5. December 6, 2017

    When the movie of “The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe” came out I didn’t go see it for a long time. I had read it many times as a kid and I had such a clear picture of the characters and the setting, of what had happened, that I did not want that picture destroyed. This was a picture created when I was pre-teen and still carried when I was in my fifties. Learing to read, really read, is powerful stuff, and it has been lost for several generations. With it has been lost much of our ability to reason.

  6. realitychecker permalink
    December 6, 2017

    Word, Bill.

  7. FleshyAbundance permalink
    December 6, 2017

    “Americans can’t have gotten that much stupider in the last 98 years.”

    If you believe Russia had any discernible effect on the 2016 election you are proof that Americans are on average dumber.

  8. Willy permalink
    December 6, 2017

    My in-law is a strident “liberal hater”. He’s also a prosperous member of the strongest remaining union in the land, the Longshoremans Union. He watches a lot of TV.

    One dares not try to discuss “rent-seeking” concepts with him, lest he goes off on a rant that would make Sarah Palin proud.

  9. Willy permalink
    December 6, 2017

    If you believe Russia had any discernible effect on the 2016 election you are proof that Americans are on average dumber.

    America does the same thing, sometimes with high tech weaponry. Still, some of us fools continue to strive for a true representative democracy.

  10. Steeleweed permalink
    December 6, 2017

    The only time monopolies can be beneficial is if they are ‘running scared’. If they are under serious threat of tight regulation and/or being broken up, they behave better because they don’t want to give the government any excuse or opening to attack them. Ma Bell was much more efficient and gave better service when they thought they might avoid being broken up. IBM was incredibly ethical while it had an anti-trust case before the courts. To the extent that wealth consists of things of value, capitalism was never about building wealth – creating anything of inherent value. It is all about transferring someone else’s wealth into one’s own pocket. The only competition is if capitalist #1 doesn’t do it, capitalist #2 will – and grow bigger thereby. This displays capitalism’s Primary Rule – Grow or Perish. Big capitalists eat smaller capitalists (it’s easier to swallow 1000 entities by consuming ten 100-entity-units than taking over the 1000 one at a time. Like cancer, capitalism must grow or die – an economic cancer.

  11. December 6, 2017

    This can also be seen in Tennessee and North Carolina, where the broadband providers got the state legislature to make it illegal for municipalities to offer broadband as a utility. Which it absolutely should be.

  12. Peter permalink
    December 6, 2017

    I wonder why these mostly fringe sites were so high on the Google stack before this change. Why were estimates and not actual click counts used to show their traffic decline? If the decline in visits to these sites is accurate their anti-American, anti-capitalist often outright commie messages must not be able to keep the attention of the many visitors who don’t return.

    RT is a Russian state propaganda organ whether they produce fake news or not and the fair.org link seems to be mostly apologia for what they are.

  13. rote permalink
    December 6, 2017

    Peter – what do you think about Chinese internet censorship?

  14. December 6, 2017

    Mostly fringe sites? Are you on drugs? Have you been drinking?

  15. December 6, 2017

    Americans most assuredly have gotten stupider. Among other proofs is the recalibrating of SAT scores in 1994:

    Beginning in April 1995, the College Board, based in Manhattan, will be recalibrating its scoring of the Scholastic Assessment Test. The bottom score will still be 200 and the top 800, but it will be easier for everyone to get higher scores.

    A 430 score on the verbal section of the S.A.T. will suddenly become a 510 under the new scoring method. A 730 verbal score will become an 800…

    “The question people will ask,” said Bradley J. Quin, a senior project director of the College Board, “is, ‘Aren’t you just making kids feel better by giving them higher scores?’ The answer is, absolutely, positively not. The performance that generates a 424 today will now generate a 500. The kid is no brighter, doesn’t have any more bright answers. It’s just the label is higher. Everyone will know.”

    Mr. Quin said they were making the change so students would have a better sense of what their scores mean. When the current scoring system was established in 1941, 500 was the average score for each test, the math and verbal. Those scores have been declining for nearly four decades. The average verbal score today is 424; the average math score, 478.

    So the College Board officials have decided to “recenter” the scale, changing it so the average student will once again get scores of 500 on the verbal and math tests.

    http://www.nytimes.com/1994/06/11/us/sat-increases-the-average-score-by-fiat.html

  16. wendy davis permalink
    December 6, 2017

    drive by comment:

    ‘Google’s Eric Schmidt admits political censorship of search results’, wsws.org,
    22 November 2017

    http://www.wsws.org/en/articles/2017/11/22/pers-n22.html

    also, julian assange’s ‘google is not what it seems’ from the wayback machine, an excerpt from his book ‘when google met wikileaks’

    https://wikileaks.org/google-is-not-what-it-seems/

  17. Peter permalink
    December 6, 2017

    @Rote

    China is a one party totalitarian state so I wouldn’t expect them to have press freedom. We aren’t ruled by the NWO Stalinists yet so we don’t face banning of any of these sites or others yet. This type of harassment or at least non promotion may be why we are #43 in the press freedom index.

  18. Billikin permalink
    December 7, 2017

    People on average are getting smarter — in terms of IQ tests, anyway — by comparison with people born before them. See the Flynn Effect. ( https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4152423/ ). The SAT is a moving target, and has certain ethnic, linguistic, and class biases. It is a kind of IQ test, but measuring IQ is not its purpose.

    I recall that my grandmother’s high school texts were more advanced than my high school texts, particularly in English. But in her day many, if not most people in the US did not go to high school. The average high school student in her day was smarter than the average high school student in my day. That does not mean that the average teenager was smarter. The Flynn Effect indicates that teenagers in my day were smarter (in terms of IQ) than teenagers in her day. The apparent dumbing down of high school was a selection effect. The apparent dumbing down of the SAT may also be a selection effect, as a greater percentage of students take the test. I don’t know.

    About the SAT not functioning as an IQ test: I don’t know if the SAT still has questions of the form, “A is to B as C is to —“. It is no secret that Black kids do not score as well on the SAT as White kids, and that was true of this kind of question. Now, back in the 1950s or 1960s researchers found that when you changed the wording of the questions to “A goes with B like C goes with —,” the differences between Black kids and White kids disappeared. If you are measuring intelligence the thing to do is to change the wording of the questions to eliminate the bias against Black kids. But did the ETS change the wording? Of course not. One of the purposes of the SAT at that time was to select for kids who scored better with the is to – as form, because they did better in college.

    Kids are smarter today. Get over it.

  19. Jay permalink
    December 7, 2017

    Apparently conservative news sites are also complaining about the bias: http://www.theblaze.com/news/2017/09/12/report-google-is-biased-against-conservative-websites

    Offhand, I’d guess that Google is trying to prioritize mainstream/uncontroversial/”credible” sites over partisan sites. Which may be problematic, but is a different sort of problematic.

  20. zotter permalink
    December 7, 2017

    Great post, thanks Ian.

  21. stratos permalink
    December 7, 2017

    An alternative to Google search is StartPage by Ixquick. They are “enhanced” by Google, but deliver independent (and private) results.

    https://www.ixquick.com/

  22. Willy permalink
    December 7, 2017

    Kids are smarter today. Get over it.

    But the conservative voting bloc is much, much dumber. 81% of evangelicals for Trump. The support for Roy Moore. Gateway Pundit. Sarah Palin. Offspring of geriatric Fox News addicts observing their parents developing an irrational angry dementia. Pranksters infiltrating Conservapedia with nonsensical posts which remain untouched for years, with few editors or regular readers ever noticing…

  23. December 7, 2017

    Willy – you really ought to be banned for saying such stupid stuff. There is no data to support intelligence and voting but hey lets make stuff up.

    Given Hillary’s base, I would argue they are on average low IQ due to the nature of the support. Look at all the sexual predators the Dem’s have – example Conyers and Frankengroper. Explain that?

  24. Willy permalink
    December 7, 2017

    A1,

    First you claim that I should be banned because I have no supporting data about voters intelligence.

    Then, in the very same comment, you claim Hillary’s base has average low IQ, with no supporting data.

    Are you an evangelical?

  25. Willy permalink
    December 7, 2017

    Sexual predators, such as Roger Ailes, Bill O’Reilly, and Bill Cosby?

    If you lurked for a while instead of just knee-jerk emo-posting, you’d know full well that I do not trust anybody in power, regardless of party affiliation. At least not without them having proven themselves worthy and capable of handling such power reasonable personal integrity…

  26. Will permalink
    December 7, 2017

    Interesting piece Ian. This is a bigger deal than we think and you are to be commended for keeping it in mix.

    About intelligence… dicey subject for sure. I’ll leave the finer points of whether we are gaining it or losing it over the generations to someone else.

    But I think it is beyond any reasonable doubt that as a whole, the electorate is nowhere near the level of our earlier days in either sophistication or depth of understanding. When I say “beyond any reasonable doubt” I mean just that. It isn’t even close.

    Anyone who doubts this can go back and read the Lincoln-Douglas debates. My god, these men were discussing matters of extreme importance, not just pertaining to politics but what it means to be human. And they soared. The level of debate was so far beyond anything we are capable of that it almost makes you sad to read it.

    AND these debates were given to an audience of storekeepers, school teacher, farmers, teamsters, etc. And those people understood it. And used it to determine how they felt the nation should proceed.

    Even FDR’s fireplace chats, a medium that was used to make Roosevelt’s case in a relaxed and “homey” atmosphere, transcend anything that our political system has produced in my lifetime. The way he laid out his case for reform but not panic would be considered other worldly at this time. And the examples run on as far as you wish to go back and reference them. They had their childish banter and their airing of dirty laundry that compares to anything produced today. But when those old dudes got down to business they exuded intellectual power that not one of our contemporary political figures can match.

    Are we dumber? It doesn’t matter. We are less effective as an electorate and our leaders reflect that.

    Will

  27. Willy permalink
    December 7, 2017

    Lincoln, Douglass, FDR… Which came first, the men of integrity, or the constituency they were trying to persuade?

    Or, if one of their kind (regardless of party affiliation), tried to gain power today would they be booed off the stage for being ‘too intelligent’?

  28. Hugh permalink
    December 7, 2017

    I agree great post. A well regulated monopoly is called a utility. Unregulated monopolies and oligopolies result in high prices, bad service/merchandise, lack of innovation, and as here other noxious consequences such as censorship. So yes, break them up or regulate (and tax) the hell out of them until that they serve society’s interest. Banking and media are two other industries that come to mind for this treatment.

    As I have said before, corporations worship at the altar of Competivity when it is a question of cutting wages and benefits and/or shipping workers’ jobs to China. But when it comes to their own anti-competitive consolidation, not so much. Or perversely, they argue that consolidation increases competivity even when it manifestly does not.

    Re intelligence, I see several issues. First, there are many different intelligences. Second, intelligence is not quantifiable. We can say sometimes, in some general way, and in some particular context that A is more intelligent than B, but we can not say how much more in any specific way, and often, and importantly, in many, many instances, we can not say that either is more intelligent in any significant way. Third, there is a confounding between learning and intelligence. Learning is class and socio-economically dependent. It isn’t just that tests can have built in cultural biases. It is that rich, stable, supportive homes improve learning and this improves test scores. And yes, that those who live in richer communities can afford better schools. With the death of the middle class, what we are seeing is another example of the 80/20 class divide. Those in the economically top 20% are much more likely to have such rich learning environments, and those in the bottom 80% increasingly less so. Additionally, those in the top 20% have the resources to learn and practise test taking and to take tests multiple times.

    As a result of these things, quantitative testing of intelligence is a con. It confounds learning, class and economic circumstance, and test-taking in an extremely limited circular definition of intelligence based on itself, tests, and asserts that its results are quantifiable, meaningful, and indicative, contentions which are either dubious or false.

  29. Will permalink
    December 8, 2017

    Willy: “Lincoln, Douglass, FDR… Which came first, the men of integrity, or the constituency they were trying to persuade?
    Or, if one of their kind (regardless of party affiliation), tried to gain power today would they be booed off the stage for being ‘too intelligent’?”

    END QUOTE

    I’ve heard that question argued both ways and some good points were made. Myself, I believe that there is a symbiosis where a well informed and grounded electorate encourages men of integrity to seek roles in government. Likewise I think a sloppy and unmoored electorate encourages thieves, grifters, charlatans to seek power. One guess as to where we are at this point in time.

    Thing is this, it is always a hell of a lot easier to tear things down than to build up. We have lost a whole lot of our goodness in a remarkably short period of time. It will take a lot of hard work and fortitude to recapture it. Impatience and a tendency to take shortcuts could be catastrophic. That is where you really make mistakes and lose everything.

    Will

  30. December 8, 2017

    Are they, like, gentrifying the internet the same way they are everything else?

  31. Willy permalink
    December 8, 2017

    Will,
    Does goodness always have to come only after hitting bottom? Is it possible to get busy everyday people to think outside their box, to avoid the bottom?

Leave a Reply

Note: You can use basic XHTML in your comments. Your email address will never be published.

Subscribe to this comment feed via RSS