The Internet and the Myth of Liberating Neutrality



So Google is lying to us. Google deceives us every day and misleads us several times a day. The case opened by the European Commission against the search engine has economic grounds: Google is accused of abusing its dominant position. For example, in the search results for a trip, the sites Google owns or that are linked to it are shown before others. And since we know Internet users are satisfied with the first results on the list and almost never go to the next pages, the advantage “of being shown first” is considerable.

We must recognize and support the courage of the European commissioner for competition — the Dane, Margrethe Vestager — for taking on the giant. Reading the investigation done in the United States, buried by American authorities but revealed by the New York Times, there seems to be no doubt about Google’s wrongdoing. The court will decide. The group that prides itself on being a child of innovation would have become parricidal.

It’s not the first one, people will say. Such is the irrepressible monopolistic logic of capitalism: a successful company tends to want to crush its competitors. And that’s why the States or their delegated authorities, in this case Brussels, must meticulously prohibit abuses.

But let’s return to the lie. The European charge against Google says much more about it than its economic aspect. Google is not IBM, which made machines, or Microsoft, which made software to run those machines. Both could claim technological neutrality — even if this concept itself is questioned, by McLuhan for example. Google is a content search engine that aligned itself with the same “net neutrality.” The search engine would be just another medium. We use it with complete freedom to find a piece of information, a news story, a fact, a date, an explanation, an article or an analysis. However, it appears that the results are not neutral. They’re distorted. Let’s be clear: the search engine founded by Larry Page is an extraordinary tool for accessing all kinds of libraries and knowledge. Google, which assigned itself the mission of “organizing information on a global scale and making it universally accessible and useful,” succeeded well beyond what we could have imagined before its creation in 1998.

But this wonderful invention that is the Internet has created a myth, that of liberating neutrality. To be able to find and read everything must lead to the benefit of humanity. The Internet liberates; the Internet helps democracy. Access to knowledge enlightens the mind. It even removes all evils from the face of the earth and transforms mankind into something good, according to the Californian “solutionist” theses of which Google is one of the inspirer-benefactors*.

The charge against Google shatters this idol, in which younger generations believe in particular. The Internet is falling from a height. The Web is also a business, and as such, it gives us access to what it wants to sell us. Behind your search page lies the ad, the profit, which makes it biased. We knew this, of course. We admitted that Google needed to “break even.” Beyond business bias, we also knew that there was inevitably, from the start, a technical bias. The search engine’s algorithms are never merely algorithms. They contain choices.

But the myth wanted us to — by finding all information and counter information, and obtaining the thesis and the antithesis in one click — filter through the information, and settle on a fair conclusion in the end. But then we discover that the filters are made out of dollar bills and, in the end, the decantation has a funny taste.

What is true for business is true for politics. The Internet’s democratic outlet is seriously called into question by the Islamic State. Terrorism found a breeding ground as favorable to its proliferation, if not more so, than Chinese protesters or young Tunisians. And the fight against terrorism leads to tools that very much threaten to destroy civil liberties.

Internet promoters’ fundamental mistake is very serious. Information technology was created by engineers who think that access provides freedom, and that it is enough to allow access to all books and to all knowledge for mankind to know good and evil. We see that it’s not so. The ultra-informed man remains uncouth. Worse, he can find material to reinforce his blunders on the Internet, where everything circulates. We can wonder whether the Internet isn’t a powerful consolidation tool for false news, invented plots and anti-scientific theses — in short, all the nonsense that the fertile mind of man can imagine.

Here is the key, given in Genesis, and forgotten: freedom is not in the access; it’s in the judgment. The free man is not the one with all the information, but the one who knows how to use knowledge to create a vision of things and facts. It is not enough to have the books. It’s still necessary to know how to read them and make them one’s own. It’s time for the Internet to stop remaining solely in the hands of engineers, or rather for them to specifically admit that all content is not neutral, is not equal and especially that it’s not worth its weight in dollars alone.

The engineers’ Internet outflanks everything today, including the two knowledge distributors, which are schools and the press. Mankind has gained a lot in terms of access — thank you Google. It has also lost a lot in terms of judgment.

*Read the excellent book on the subject by Dominique Nora: “Letters to my parents about the world of tomorrow” (Grasset).

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