Apple, Facebook and Google Are the de Facto Regulators of the Digital Domain

They Rule by Whim and Algorithm -- and That's Fine With Most Users

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The major powers of Silicon Valley don't have the feds' power or authority, but they're assembling a pretty comprehensive ability to shape the way we experience the digital realm, affecting what seems popular, what's permissible, what's public and, most recently, which websites are "good" and "bad."

The funny thing is how happily we, a people who generally trust our elected government as far as we could throw a representative, extend the benefit of the doubt to companies that answer to investors, shareholders and genius CEOs rather than to us.

Do you want to know what everyone's talking about? Twitter's Trending Topics list will tell you what they just started discussing, but it buries persistently popular memes, which is why Justin Bieber's people came up with an elaborate scheme to try to make his February movie "Never Say Never" register as a Trending Topic. And Twitter's machinations also seem to be why trendy political subjects such as massive student protests in Britain and WikiLeaks became no-shows on the Trending List at the height of their popularity.

Speaking of WikiLeaks, would you like its iPhone or iPad app? Apple rejected them in December, noting that "Apps must comply with all local laws and may not put an individual or targeted group in harm's way," although WikiLeaks hadn't been charged with any crimes and the harm its leaks have caused is a matter of debate. (You can still use Apple's Safari browser to visit WikiLeaks' site.)

Facebook, God bless it, just published a draft privacy policy ditching the "legalese" in an effort to offer "a privacy policy written for you." But you still can't opt out of seeing your likes drafted into ad units called sponsored stories. Facebook notes that liking something in the first place means you wanted your friends to know. So if you don't like the idea of becoming ad copy, that's tough luck. Your option is to stop sharing.

But that's OK with us, the vast majority of the time. Every time Facebook changes a format or tweaks account settings, you can count on a raft of people vowing to quit the service -- but its numbers keep rising and rising. Aunt Flo keeps playing Farmville, Cousin Ted keeps posting and tagging photos of you from childhood, and Mom actually put her phone number and street address in her profile.

"These services are meant for gigantic groups of people," reasoned David Cho, publisher of the blog The Awl. "The reason these companies -- Google, Twitter and Facebook -- are so huge is that they don't tell you how to use their interface. And that's why it will never be completely optimized for me, or for Justin Bieber fans."

The most striking sign of our assent came less than two weeks ago, when Google said it had just changed its search algorithm to penalize websites that are "just not very useful" in order to benefit "high-quality sites" delivering goods like "thoughtful analysis."

Google may strive to do no evil, but it did plenty of censoring by pushing some sites down the search-results page.

The acclaim was all but universal.

Google was trying to help searchers separate trustworthy information from the rapidly spreading but wafer-thin articles that high-volume content generators -- known derisively as content farms -- were assigning freelancers, often to match popular search terms.

It was fantastic-unless you disagree with Google about what's good and what's bad, want to know exactly how Google decides which is which, or fear future, different decisions.

"I applaud the values that Google is declaring in this change," said Siva Vaidhyanathan, author of "The Googlization of Everything (And Why We Should Worry)" and professor of media studies and law at the University of Virginia. "This is a change that I think improves the web. But who's to say that the next decision is going to be, first of all, so public and, secondly, so beneficial?"

Even the current change is shrouded in mystery, which ought to be a little concerning. How is Google sorting the "thoughtful" from the "not useful"?

As always, it can't -- or won't -- really say. "We can't share additional specifics because we don't want to give bad actors a way to game our algorithms and worsen the experience for our users," a spokesman said last week. At least the government tells you what the rules are.

One of the companies often pegged as a content farm, as it happens, was not particularly wounded, at least not right off. "It's impossible to speculate how these or any changes made by Google impact any online business in the long term-but at this point in time, we haven't seen a material net impact on our content and media business," said Larry Fitzgibbon, exec VP-media and operations at Demand Media, in a statement following Google's recalibration.

The search-engine-optimization firm Sistrix corroborated that with an analysis showing that Demand Media's content even fared better in search results after the change.

So who cares, right?

Employees at do. The company was forced to eliminate a handful of jobs -- about 10% of staff -- and suspend freelance content production after Google's move led to a significant drop in traffic and ad revenue, according to a company email obtained by the CenterNetworks blog.

And Google itself isn't above reproach. It's been accused of being a monopoly, particularly as it bulked up with acquisitions of companies like DoubleClick, the online-display-ad company. Last summer the French Competition Authority even said so. But we consumers keep coming back.

Google might have actually stirred up some blowback if it had demoted a whole bunch of sites six months ago, before complaints about content farms reached a high pitch, according to Danny Sullivan, search expert and editor in chief at Search Engine Land. "Maybe a lot of people would have praised them, but you might have had a lot of people saying they've got some nefarious thing or this is another example of why you need antitrust regulations. Now when they do it, people say 'Thank you, Google,' for effectively censoring these sites.

"I still trust that they're doing things that they think are in the user's interest," Mr. Sullivan added. "I don't think they've done this just because it benefits Google, except that it benefits Google to have good search."

Even Mahalo seemed to feel that way, noting that Google still liked its videos as it tried to discern how the unspecified algorithm change had parsed its content. "Our videos are hosted by experts, while our pages are written by qualified writers who in many cases do not have the level of expertise of the people in the videos," its execs explained to staffers last week. They did not respond to requests for comment.

"What does this mean for the average writer?" they added. "It means they need to become an expert in something -- and fast! It's possible simple writing and reporting is no longer a skill that the algorithm values highly."

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