In 1998, while still at Stanford, Sergey Brin and Lawrence Page wrote in their article The Anatomy of a Large-Scale Hypertextual Web Search Engine:
Currently, the predominant business model for commercial search engines is advertising. The goals of the advertising business model do not always correspond to providing quality search to users. For example, in our prototype search engine one of the top results for cellular phone is “The Effect of Cellular Phone Use Upon Driver Attention”, a study which explains in great detail the distractions and risk associated with conversing on a cell phone while driving. This search result came up first because of its high importance as judged by the PageRank algorithm, an approximation of citation importance on the web. It is clear that a search engine which was taking money for showing cellular phone ads would have difficulty justifying the page that our system returned to its paying advertisers. For this type of reason and historical experience with other media [Bagdikian 83], we expect that advertising funded search engines will be inherently biased towards the advertisers and away from the needs of the consumers.
Bias is perhaps the biggest problem when it comes to search. A blatant advertisement, by which I mean something that is obviously an ad, is arguably not insidious. I am not a fan of adverts but accept their role in the media landscape. I take heart when I can see an advert for what it is, a biased presentation of reality. When this context is known, then at least I may apply my own judgement about what is presented.
Where things get murky, is when I do not know that what is being presented is an advert. In these instances, I can all too easily mistake paid and biased content for a relevant unbiased result. A process that can fundamentally misshape my perception of the information and judgement about what is true.
People often say: ‘Google will have the answer’. But if Google, or any other search engine, does not present truthful answers, then my view of a subject is fundamentally coloured by the lobby group or advertisers who have monopolised the search result.
At a commercial level, biased search results can stifle innovation, sector diversity, and consumer choice. In politics, or information search in general, this is an even greater challenge. For what is at stake is not the commercial viability of a product, but the hearts and minds of the people.
With Brin and Page clearly recognising this yet leading a company to the heights of the paid search world, a common reaction is that they gave up on their vision so people would show them the money! But I wonder if there is an alternative reading. One in which they did not make a conscious decision to be ‘evil’, instead, having their leadership and vision shaped by the realities of running an ever more successful organisation.
I discussed this during my MBA in Organisational Behaviour seminars. The course convener, arguably very left leaning and deeply concerned about corporate social responsibility, had long advocated for sustainability in management, and been very scathing of organisations or institutions that did not take a hard line about environmental responsibility. Yet as she climbed the leadership pole in the faculty, her stance shifted from attacking the university’s policies to actively defending them. Pausing on my observation of this, she noted that while her beliefs about the environment had not changed, she now had a greater responsibility than only her personal beliefs.
For leaders, the challenge inherent in exercising the power delegated to them is knowing when to enact what they have learned of their responsibilities’ requirements and when to follow their own deliberative decisions. A process that may witness them go against the apparent needs of their new responsibilities.