Since the coronavirus has become a dominant force in our lives, the world has shifted to the digital sphere, and the big IT companies are experiencing a boom. The Silicon-Valley-based company Zoom, for instance, has seen a growth in user numbers from 10 million in 2019 to over 200 million per month in one year. This market leader for video conferencing software not only keeps our private connections alive, the tool is also used in schools, companies or universities. “This explosive digitalisation has not occurred in an orderly way, it was fuelled by a crisis situation. Whatever has been implemented now, however, is here to stay for the coming decades,” warns Astrid Mager of the Institute of Technology Assessment at the Austrian Academy of Sciences. She considers this situation to be a good opportunity for observing how technology becomes entrenched in our society.
For years Mager has been studying the way in which algorithms determine our lives. In an FWF-funded project for her professorial qualification entitled “Algorithmic Imaginations”, she has focused on the discordance that is opening up between global search engines and European value systems. Europe takes a particularly critical view of the practices of US-based companies like Google, Microsoft and others, whose business models are based on user data, which leads to debates about privacy in times of “surveillance capitalism” and raises the question of which search windows we want to use for looking at the world.
Technology edge from Silicon Valley
It seems justified to ask about possible alternatives, a European Google for instance, or about whether any non-commercial search engines exist and what digitalisation strategy the European Union is pursuing. The statistics provide a sober answer: at 93 percent, the market share of Google's search engine in Europe is even higher than in the USA. This company, which grew big together with the internet, has been building its index – a database of the entire net – since the outset and has an important impact on existing search practices. It is hard to overcome such a leading edge of nearly three decades in technology developments and data construction. Mager voices her concerns: “This is where the problem starts. Smaller companies are having a hard time catching up. We are thus dependent on a few Silicon Valley companies that are also pioneers in artificial intelligence. This in turn means that these corporations are shaping not only our technologies, but also our visions for the future.”
Access to knowledge is a public task
A publicly funded and free web index does not yet exist worldwide. The Open Web Index initiative has been pursuing this idea since 2015 and is one of three European case studies for alternative search engines that Mager is investigating in her current project. Open Web Index emerged in the academic world in Germany and also gave rise to a second sub-group, the Open Search Foundation. Their aim is to build up their own index that is as comprehensive as possible and whose data can be used by different types of search engines as a database. “In the European context, a separate infrastructure would make sense, since we rely heavily on regulation and a lot has happened in this field in recent years – just think of the General Data Protection Regulation or the right to be forgotten,” Mager notes. She compares internet searches with basic infrastructure, such as roads or the water supply. Privatising such basic services promotes social inequality and can become a tipping point for democracies. Providing access to knowledge for all on the basis of democratic principles should therefore be a task that is funded by the state, or, given the size of the investment, by the EU as a whole, as Mager's case study partners point out. This is how public libraries developed. Today, search engines are the gatekeepers that make knowledge and information accessible.
Diversified search engines for special requirements
The basic principle of the German search engine YaCy is to make knowledge accessible in a transparent and democratic way. This community-driven project started back in 2003 in the free software scene. Regular “OpenTechSummits” produce a lot of technology development based on the peer-to-peer principle. All participants are contributing to building an open index that is distributed on the computers of the users. This also means, however, that the search results depend on the number of users online. It is as yet undecided whether a complete index can ever be created in this way. Since 2016, work has also been underway on the open-source voice assistant SUSI.AI which is designed to offer an alternative to Alexa and Siri. Mager notes a gap in the European funding and tendering system when it comes to supporting projects like YaCy or SUSI.AI. But a search engine does not have to cover everything, Mager says: “There could be special-interest search engines with a smaller scope, for example for the academic sector or for investigative journalists. “
The company Startpage (formerly IxQuick), based in the Netherlands and with its own servers, takes a different approach. Startpage, which claims to be the “safest search engine in the world”, is now more widely used, especially in German-speaking countries. Startpage uses Google's search results, but does not record the data (IP addresses) of the users and thus renounces personalised advertising. Ads for generating revenue are used only on the basis of the search terms entered. The fact that Startpage respects the privacy of users and implements it at technological level earned the company the European Privacy Seal.
Countering monopolisation with alternatives
In summary, Mager notes that the case studies show that it is always a balancing act to implement social values and norms in technology. If the results are to be useful, compromises are required. If Europe wants to break away from commercial search engines and build up an independent infrastructure, it needs not only the appropriate funding, but first and foremost the political will, which does not really exist at present according to Mager. She notes that it is ultimately a lobbying task to push for large-scale investments of billions of Euros in the format of a “Human Genome Project”.
According to Mager, counteracting monopolisation is a social task. She notes that if an open web index were available, Europe's cultural, economic and political diversity could produce a landscape of different search engines. One thing is becoming increasingly clear, in any case: we need governance in addition to technology to answer important questions about who moderates our content, based on what guidelines, and who will control public debates and our view of the world in the future: public institutions, citizens, or companies based on their business models.
Astrid Mager is a senior postdoc at the Institute of Technology Assessment of the Austrian Academy of Sciences (ÖAW) and a lecturer in the Department of Science and Technology Studies at the University of Vienna. Her research focuses on the social, cultural, political and ethical implications of an algorithm-suffused society. Her project “Algorithmic Imaginaries. Visions and Values in the Design of Search Engines” (2016–2022) is funded by the Austrian Science Fund FWF under the Richter funding track with EUR 332,000. Mager has been a member of the Young Academy of the ÖAW since 2018.
Mager, A., Katzenbach, C.: Future imaginaries in the making and governing of digital technology: Multiple, Contested, Commodified, in: New Media & Society 2020
Mager, A.: Search engine imaginary: Visions and values in the co-production of search technology and Europe, in: Social Studies of Science 2016
Mager, A.: Algorithmic Ideology – How capitalist society shapes search engines, in: Information, Communication & Society 2012 (pdf)