Updated at 11:45 a.m. ET on October 7, 2023
Living online means you never really understand what’s happening to you at any given moment. Why these search results? Why this product recommendation? There is a feeling – often justified, sometimes conspiratorial – that we are constantly being manipulated by platforms and websites.
So-called dark patterns, deceptive pieces of web design that can trick people into making certain choices online, make it more difficult to unsubscribe from a scam or unwanted newsletter; they push us to buy. Algorithms optimized for engagement shape what we see on social media and can get us to participate by showing us things that are likely to elicit strong emotional responses. But even if we know that all of this happens in aggregate, it’s hard to know specifically how big tech companies exert their influence over our lives.
This week, Wire bound published a story by former FTC attorney Megan Gray that illustrates the dynamic in a nutshell. The op-ed alleged that Google is changing user searches to include more lucrative keywords. For example, Google is said to surreptitiously replace a query for “children’s clothing” with “NIKOLAI branded children’s clothing” on the back page to lead users to lucrative shopping links on the results page. It’s an alarming allegation, and Ned Adriance, a Google spokesperson, told me it’s “outright false.” Gray, who is also a former vice president of Google Search rival DuckDuckGo, had apparently misinterpreted a chart briefly presented during the company’s ongoing US et al v. Google lawsuit, in which the company is defending itself against allegations that it violated federal antitrust laws. (That chart, according to Adriance, represents a “phrase matching” feature the company uses for its ad product; “Google isn’t removing queries and replacing them with ones that earn better money as the opinion suggests, and the organic results you see in Search aren’t affected of our ad systems,” he said.)
Gray told me: “I stand by my larger point – Google’s search team and Google’s ad team worked together to secretly increase commercial queries, which drove more ads and thus revenue. Google does not dispute this, as far as I know.” In a statement, Chelsea Russo, another Google spokeswoman, reiterated that the company’s products do not work this way, citing testimony from Google VP Jerry Dischler that “the organic team does not take data from the ad team to influence its rankings and influence its results.” Wire bound did not respond to a request for comment. Last night, the publication removed the story from its website and noted that it is not being met Wire bounds editorial standards.
It is difficult to know what to make of these competing statements. Gray’s specific facts may be wrong, but the broader concern about Google’s business — that it’s making monetization decisions that could make the product feel less useful or enjoyable — is at the heart of the government’s case against the company. None of this is easy to sort out in plain English – in fact, that’s the whole point of the trial. For most of us, evidence about Big Tech’s products tends to be anecdotal or fuzzy—more vibe-based than fact-based. Google may not change billions of queries the way that Wire bound history suggests, but the company is constantly tweaking and ranking what we see, while inserting ads and proprietary widgets into our feed, changing our experience. And so we stop saying that Google Search is less useful now or that shopping on Amazon has gotten worse. These tools are so embedded in our lives that we feel acutely that something is wrong, even if we can’t put our finger on the technical problem.
That is changing. In the past month, thanks to a series of antitrust actions on behalf of the federal government, strong evidence is trickling out about how Silicon Valley’s biggest companies exert their influence. Google’s trial is ongoing, and while the tech giant is trying to keep testimony under wraps, the past four weeks have helped illustrate — via internal company documents and slideshows like the one cited by Wire bound—how Google has used its war chest to broker deals and dominate the search market. Maybe the details in Gray’s paper were wrong, but we’ve learned, for example, how business leaders considered adapting Google’s products to lead to more “earnable questions.” And just last week, the Federal Trade Commission filed a lawsuit against Amazon alleging anti-competitive practices. (Amazon has called the color “misguided.”)
Filings related to that lawsuit have delivered a startling revelation about a secretive Amazon algorithm codenamed Project Nessie. The details of Nessie were heavily redacted in the public complaint, however, this week The Wall Street Journal revealed the details of the program. According to the unredacted complaint, a copy of which I’ve also seen, Nessie — which is no longer in use — monitored industry prices on specific items to determine whether competitors were algorithmically matching Amazon’s prices. In the event that competitors were, Nessie would exploit this by systematically raising the prices of goods across Amazon, encouraging its competitors to follow suit. Amazon knew through the algorithm that it could charge more on its own site because it didn’t have to worry about being undercut elsewhere, thereby making the wider online shopping experience worse for everyone. An Amazon spokesperson said Newspaper that the FTC is mischaracterizing the tool, suggesting that Nessie was a way to monitor competitors’ pricing and keep price-matching algorithms from lowering prices to unsustainable levels (the company did not respond to my request for comment).
In the FTC’s telling, Project Nessie demonstrates the extent of Amazon’s power in online markets. The project arguably amounted to a form of unilateral price-fixing, in which Amazon essentially made its competitors act like cartel members without even knowing they had — all while raising prices on consumers. It’s an astonishing form of influence, powered by behind-the-scenes technology.
The government will have to prove whether this type of algorithmic influence is illegal. But even putting legality aside, Project Nessie is a prime example of how Big Tech has supercharged capitalist tendencies and manipulated markets in unnatural and opaque ways. It shows the muscle a company can throw around once it has consolidated its position in a particular sector. The complaint alleges that Amazon’s reach and logistics capabilities compel third-party sellers to offer products on Amazon and at lower prices than other retailers. Once Amazon captured a significant share of the retail market, Amazon could use algorithmic tools like Nessie to drive up prices for specific products, increase revenue, and manipulate competitors.
When I read about Project Nessie, I was surprised to feel a sense of relief. In recent years, customer satisfaction has declined among Amazon shoppers who have cited delivery disruptions, an explosion of third-party sellers and poor quality products as causes of frustration. In my own life and among friends and relatives, there has been a growing sense that shopping on the platform has become a hassle, with fewer deals and a lot more junk to sift through. Again, these feelings tend to occupy vibe territory: the vastness of the Amazon seems suffocating or tearing in ways that are not always easy to explain. But Nessie provides a partial explanation for this frustration, as do revelations about Google’s various product tweaks. We have the feeling that we are being manipulated because we are. It’s a bit like feeling vaguely sick, going to the doctor and getting a blood test that confirms that, yes, the malaise you experienced is actually an iron deficiency. It’s cathartic to finally get a diagnosis.
This is the true force behind the rise of antitrust litigation. (According to experts in the field, September was “the most extraordinary month they’ve ever seen in antitrust.”) Whether any of these lawsuits lead to corporate breakups or lasting changes, they’re effectively an MRI of our sprawling digital economy—a forensic look at what these major technology companies are really doing and how they exert their influence and cause harm. It’s confirmation that what so many of us have felt – that the platforms that dictate our online experiences behave unnaturally and manipulatively – is not just a paranoid delusion, but the effect of an asymmetrical relationship between the giants of scale and us, the users.
In recent years, it’s been harder to love the internet, a miracle of connectivity that feels increasingly bloated, stagnant, commercialized and trash-filled. We’re just beginning to understand the details of this transformation—the true influence of Silicon Valley’s vise grip on our lives. It turns out that the slow rot we can feel isn’t just in our heads after all.
#finally #proof #internet #worse