President Donald Trump has long had a fraught relationship with the news media, particularly the White House press corps. Now he has decided to extend his attacks on the media to internet intermediaries, especially the Google search engine.
He tweeted — and later deleted — that Google has rigged the search for "Trump News" to report only bad news about his administration. He also said they are suppressing the voices of conservatives. Trump concluded this is a "very serious situation" which "will be addressed."
Is the president correct about Google? I searched for "Trump News" on three search engines: Google, Bing and DuckDuckGo. It's true that links to the mainstream media filled out the results I got back. But my results also included Fox News and, most importantly, the president's tweets attacking Google and other favorable mentions. So a searcher for news about Trump got more than one point of view. And don't trust the president or me: do the search yourself and see what you find.
The similarity of results weakens the bias charge against Google. If Google actually were out to get Trump, wouldn't they submerge his original tweets and other positive links? Are all three search engines conspiring against the president? Or more likely, are all three reflecting some underlying fact about the internet, namely that the established media tend to be skeptical about the administration?
That may reflect media bias, but so what? The Constitution guarantees freedom of the press, not fairness by the press. Our basic law protects freedom from government action, not least by the president. Some courts have ruled that Google's search results are also protected by the First Amendment. Even if Google biased their search algorithm, the company has no obligation, legal or otherwise, to provide search results favoring or disfavoring the president.
But manipulating searches to harm Trump would threaten Google's core obligation to its shareholders to maximize the value of its stock. Google is very profitable in part because of the accuracy of its results. There is also potential competition. If Google did bias its results, a large number of the 60 million people who voted for Trump could try Bing or DuckDuckGo, both of which one suspects would welcome the new users. Google's managers have profound business reasons to avoid political crusades.
Not for the first time, Trump's actions should trouble real conservatives. He seems to be fostering a conspiracy theory about Google — "they are controlling what we can & cannot see" — to divert attention from his political difficulties over the past week. But a place where the leader fosters conspiracy theories for political gain is called a banana republic, not a constitutional government.
But we are not a banana republic. We still have a government where the president and other elected officials are limited in their powers to control "the freedom of speech and of the press." Trump's barely concealed threat to "address" Google's alleged errors does more damage to American liberty than anything the company might have done. We can hope this was an empty threat. But we can also hope that one day we have a president who recognizes that freedom of speech and the press is a big part of what has made America great.