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Free Isn't Freedom: How Silicon Valley Tricks Us

Pulling the curtain back on Google, which commands more of our data than any other tech company

Robert Epstein, PhD (@DrREpstein), is Senior Research Psychologist at the American Institute for Behavioral Research and Technology in Vista, California. He has published fifteen books on A.I. and other topics, and is the former editor-in-chief of Psychology Today.

I just saw "Now You See Me 2." It stars Daniel Radcliffe as diabolical tech magnate Walter Mabry, who's a cross between Mark Zuckerberg and Lord Voldemort. According to the movie narration, Mabry and his associates "destroy people's lives, spying on the world… selling privacy to increase their profit." They also dispose of people in horrific ways, sometimes while laughing evilly. Ha ha ha!

It's the job of the elite magicians called The Horsemen—played by Mark Ruffalo, Jesse Eisenberg, Woody Harrelson, and Lizzy Caplan—to spin their magic to expose the bad guys, forcing them to "step into the light."

And you thought Daniel Radcliffe could never be evil. Image: Summit Entertainment

The movie is ludicrous but it's also a fanciful metaphor for a real-life situation being played out every day on the internet. Do such bad guys really exist? Except for the horrific, remorseless killings (as far as I know), an increasing body of evidence suggests they do. A small number of huge companies really are spying on the world, violating our privacy to increase their profit, and, as I document in my recent essay, "The New Censorship," at times, destroying people's lives.

Small business owners have long complained of the Google's frequent and mysterious adjustments to its search algorithm, which effectively punish them for violating one of the search engine's mostly obscure criteria.

Even some of the world's largest companies live in constant "fear of Google"; sudden banishment from search results, YouTube, AdWords, Adsense, or a dozen other Alphabet-owned platforms can be devastating.

When it comes to Big Tech, there's lots to be concerned about, but let's focus on the privacy problem—one that more people are starting to think about, but that few people truly understand. For a while, it looked like Americans were completely indifferent to giving up their personal information to companies like Facebook and Google. That finally seems to be changing.

A recent Pew survey found that 91 percent of American adults are now concerned about the fact that they have "lost control" over how their personal data are being used, and a recent study of mine suggests that people are revealing about 40 percent more personal information online than they would if they were more aware of how that information might be used.

I think people will be even more concerned when they understand what is really at stake here. When, day after day, people give away small bits of themselves to Big Data, they eventually give up power over their lives. Here is how this works:

When we use "free" online services such as Facebook, Gmail, YouTube, Instagram, or the Google search engine, we are actually entering into a contract—and, no, I don't mean this in a flaccid, figurative sense; I mean we are literally entering into a legally binding contract.

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As Google puts it in its 1,900-word Terms of Service agreement, which incorporates its 3,000-word Privacy Policy, "By using our Services, you are agreeing to these terms."

This rule applies even if you don't know you are using any of these services, and most of the time, you don't. Google Analytics, Google AdWords, and Google AdSense, for example, are embedded into millions of web pages.

When you visit any of those pages, you are using Google services, and you are bound by their Terms of Service. The same goes for Facebook, whose "beacons" dot the web, although to a lesser extent than Google's products do.

So what's in Google's mysterious contract? What have we unknowingly all agreed to whenever we are using Google services, knowingly or not?

For convenience, I have reduced Google's Terms of Service agreement to a simple, three-part contract. If you can muster the patience, you can read the original documents on your own to see if my take is fair. I think it's remarkably complete:

The Contract

What you get. You, the User, get lots of "free" stuff. For example, you can ask our search engine as many questions as you like, and we'll give you answers. We'll also let you look at our free map guides when you need directions, watch free videos, and give you a free email service—lots and lots of free stuff.

What we get.

In return, we get to record everything you do 24 hours a day—the questions you ask, the purchases you make, the websites you visit, the videos you watch, the places you go, the people you communicate with, the emails you write—everything.

The fine print.

We get to keep these records and to use the information we're collecting about you to connect you with businesses we think might want to sell you things, so you should expect to get advertisements from these businesses.

We might also share this information with the, uh, intelligence community, because they helped us figure out how to set up this whole scam in the first place.

They have a lot of power over you—the power that comes with information—and you have no power over them.

At first glance, this may not sound particularly threatening. It's just an exchange of information, after all. You get free information from Google, and, in return, you give up information about yourself.

Think again. This might be fair in the beginning, but what happens as the months and years go by? You continue to get that tiny trickle of free information every day, but Google has meanwhile accumulated a massive database of information about you—and that database has value.

By using the personal information Google obtains about its users to sell advertisements, the company is currently raking in about $80 billion a year. (By comparison, Facebook generated about $18 billion last year.)

Do you see the problem? Over time, the arrangement has gotten out of balance. What started as a little anthill of information Google had about you grew into a mountain; on your side, you are still just getting that trickle. Over time, what started out as a reasonably fair arrangement has put you and Google into radically different positions of power. They have a lot of power over you—the power that comes with information—and you have no power over them.

If it chose to do so, Google could use the information it has about you to embarrass, coerce, or even ruin you. It could also use what it knows about you to influence you. It could give you information that's slanted one way or another to benefit the company or to achieve any goal it likes; you would have no way of knowing it was doing so. As my laboratory and online research has shown, by slanting the information it gives you, Google can influence the decisions you make about small things, like where to travel and what to buy, and also about big things, like whom to vote for and what to believe.

The Terms of Service agreement guarantees that Google gains more and more control over everything you do, think, and say. You, meanwhile, have no clue. As Noam Chomsky once said about closed-doors trade negotiations, "People not only don't know what's happening to them, they don't even know that they don't know."

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This is what we have unknowingly signed up for—a world in which a vast and ever-increasing amount of power is concentrated in the hands of a small number of corporate executives—not just at Google, but, increasingly, at other companies that have adopted Google's deceptive revenue model.

Magicians depend on misdirection to pull off their tricks; so does Google, and it has pulled off a trick that makes movie magic look trivial. It has befuddled us into thinking that its sweet suite of services exists entirely for our benefit. It has directed our attention away from the real purpose of those services: to get us to surrender every shred of our personal lives so it can leverage the information for profit, rapidly gaining the means to exert greater influence over us as it does so—threatening the freedom of people around the world as no other entity has ever done before.

We need to start over. We need to force Google's sleight-of-hand business model into the light and to prohibit it by law. And Google's surface mission—to organize the world's information—needs to become a public project, not one run by a for-profit company. Looking back some day, I'm guessing people will think it odd that all of the world's information was once in the hands of a rapacious corporation.

Public libraries don't have hidden agendas; they don't track people's personal habits and sell that information to the highest bidder; they don't lobby public officials or try to influence public opinion. The public search engine was suggested a few years ago in an article in The Nation, and an organization called Common Search is working now to put the idea into practice; this and similar efforts need to be taken seriously.

Google's search engine is an annotated index to the world's websites; those websites belong to the world, not to Google, and so should the index, along with all the other "free" services Google and other companies are supposedly giving us. Those services were never free; we have been paying for them with our freedom.