Updated at 11:45 a.m. ET on October 7, 2023
Living online means never fully understanding what is happening to you at any given moment. Because these Search results? Because this product recommendation? There is a feeling (often justified, sometimes conspiratorial) that we are constantly manipulated by platforms and websites.
So-called dark patterns, deceptive fragments of web design that can trick people into choosing certain online options, make it more difficult to unsubscribe from a fraudulent or unwanted newsletter; They push us to buy. Algorithms optimized for engagement shape what we see on social media and can prompt us to participate by showing us things that are likely to provoke strong emotional responses. But although we know that all this is happening together, it is difficult to know specifically How big technology companies exert their influence on our lives.
This week, cabling published a story by former FTC attorney Megan Gray that illustrates the dynamic in a nutshell. The op-ed argued that Google alters users’ searches to include more lucrative keywords. For example, Google is said to surreptitiously replace a query for “children’s clothing” with “NIKOLAI brand children’s clothing” at the bottom to direct users to lucrative shopping links on the results page. It’s an alarming allegation, and Google spokesman Ned Adriance told me it’s “flat out false.” Gray, who is also the former vice president of Google search competitor DuckDuckGo, had apparently misinterpreted a chart that was briefly presented during the company’s ongoing meeting. United States and others against Google trial, in which the company defends itself against charges of violating federal antitrust law. (That chart, according to Adriance, represents a “phrase match” feature the company uses for its advertising product; “Google does not remove queries or replace them with ones that monetize better, as the op-ed suggests, and the organic results that you see in Search are not affected by our ad systems,” he said.)
Gray told me: “I stand by my most important point: the Google Search team and the Google Advertising team worked together to secretly boost commercial queries, which generated more ads and therefore revenue. As far as I know, Google does not question this.” In a statement, Chelsea Russo, another Google spokesperson, reiterated that the company’s products do not work this way and cited testimony from Google Vice President Jerry Dischler that “the organic team does not take data from the ads team to affect your ranking and affect your result.” cabling did not respond to a request for comment. Last night, the publication removed the story from its website, noting that it does not comply cablingEditorial standards.
It’s hard to know what to make of these competing statements. Gray’s specific facts may be wrong, but broader concerns about Google’s business — that it makes monetization decisions that could make the product seem less useful or enjoyable — form the heart of the government’s case against the company. None of this is easy to unravel in plain language; in fact, that is the goal of the trial. For most of us, the evidence about Big Tech products tends to be anecdotal or confusing: based more on vibes than facts. Google may not be altering billions of queries the way the cabling history suggests, but the company is constantly modifying and categorizing what we see, while injecting proprietary ads and widgets into our feed, thus altering our experience. And then we end up saying that Google Search is less useful now or that shopping on Amazon has gotten worse. These tools are so ingrained in our lives that we deeply feel that something is wrong, even if we cannot identify the technical problem.
That is changing. Last month, thanks to a series of antitrust actions on behalf of the federal government, compelling evidence is leaking out of the ways in which Silicon Valley’s biggest companies are exerting their influence. The Google trial is underway, and while the tech giant is trying to keep testimony under control, the last four weeks have helped illustrate it, through internal company documents and slide presentations like the one cited by cabling—How Google has used its war chest to negotiate deals and dominate the search market. Perhaps the details of Gray’s essay were off, but we’ve learned, for example, how company executives considered tweaking Google’s products to generate more “monetizable queries.” And just last week, the Federal Trade Commission filed a lawsuit against Amazon alleging anti-competitive practices. (Amazon has called the lawsuit “misguided.”)
Documents filed related to that lawsuit have yielded a stunning revelation about a secret Amazon algorithm codenamed Project Nessie. Nessie’s details were heavily redacted in the public complaint, but this week The Wall Street Journal revealed details of the program. According to the unredacted complaint, of which I have also seen a copy, Nessie, which is no longer in use, monitored industry prices for specific products to determine whether competitors were algorithmically matching Amazon prices. In the event that there were competitors, Nessie would take advantage of this by systematically increasing the prices of products on Amazon, encouraging its competitors to do the same. Amazon, through the algorithm, knew it could charge more on its own site, because it didn’t have to worry about being undercut elsewhere, thus worsening the broader online shopping experience for everyone. An Amazon spokesperson told Diary that the FTC is mischaracterizing the tool and suggested that Nessie was a way to monitor competitors’ prices and prevent price-matching algorithms from driving prices down to unsustainable levels (the company did not respond to my request for comment).
As told by the FTC, Project Nessie demonstrates the enormous scope of Amazon’s power in online marketplaces. The project arguably amounted to a form of unilateral price fixing, with Amazon essentially inciting its competitors to act like members of a cartel without even knowing they had done so, all while raising prices for consumers. It’s an amazing form of influence, driven by behind-the-scenes technology.
The government will have to demonstrate whether this type of algorithmic influence is illegal. But even legality aside, Project Nessie is a prime example of the way Big Tech has empowered capitalist tendencies and manipulated markets in unnatural and opaque ways. It demonstrates the strength that a company can have when it has consolidated its position in a certain sector. The complaint alleges that Amazon’s reach and logistics capabilities force third-party sellers to offer products on Amazon and at lower prices than other retailers. Once it captured a significant share of the retail market, Amazon was allegedly able to use algorithmic tools like Nessie to increase prices on specific products, increasing revenue and manipulating competitors.
Reading about Project Nessie, I was surprised to feel a sense of relief. In recent years, customer satisfaction rates have fallen among Amazon shoppers, who have cited delivery disruptions, an explosion of third-party sellers and poor-quality products as reasons for frustration. In my own life and among friends and family, there has been a growing sense that shopping on the platform has become a chore, with fewer offers and a lot more junk to sift through. Again, these feelings tend to occupy vibe Territory: Amazon’s greatness seems stifling or irritating in ways that aren’t always easy to explain. But Nessie offers a partial explanation for this frustration, as do revelations about Google’s various product tweaks. We feel like we’re being manipulated because, well, we are. It’s a bit like feeling vaguely sick, going to the doctor, and receiving a blood test result confirming that yes, the discomfort you’re experiencing is actually an iron deficiency. It is the catharsis of finally receiving a diagnosis.
This is the true power of the rise in antitrust litigation. (According to experts in the field, September was “the most extraordinary month they have ever seen in antitrust matters.”) Whether or not any of these lawsuits result in corporate splits or lasting changes, they are, effectively, an MRI of our growing digital technology. economy: A forensic look at what these giant tech companies are really doing and how they exert their influence and cause harm. It is a confirmation that what many of us have felt – that the platforms that dictate our online experiences are behaving in unnatural and manipulative ways – is not simply a paranoid illusion, but the effect of an asymmetrical relationship between the scale giants. and we, the users.
In recent years, it’s been harder to love the Internet, a miracle of connectivity that feels increasingly bloated, stagnant, commercialized, and junk. We are only now beginning to understand the details of this transformation: the true influence of Silicon Valley’s control over our lives. It turns out that the slow rot we may feel isn’t just in our heads after all.