Don't boycott Google because it's evil. Boycott it because it's terrible

Google's dodging taxes. But its worst crime is messing around with search results.

Google's Eric Schmidt went all out yesterday, saying he was "very proud" of his company's tax "structure", and that "it’s called capitalism."

Inevitably, this had led to calls for a boycott of Google until it starts to pay its fair share of corporation tax.

Of course, these calls have also marked out part of the folly of such boycotts. It's easy to boycott Starbucks: within 30 seconds walk of most UK branches you'll find more coffee. We are basically a nation of people selling coffee to each other with a bit of banking on the side.

Google is… harder. If you use any of its web services, you are likely to feel locked in (everyone knows your gmail address! Think how much work it would be to change your address books!); if you have an Android phone, you are probably contracted in without even a choice to leave; and if you use their web search, you'll probably have finished the search and clicked on a link before you even remember that you were supposed to be boycotting in the first place.

On top of that, of course, a boycott doesn't look like it would be as effective for Google as it was for Starbucks. Within days of the first allegations about the coffee company coming out, it had posted an open letter on its website; and then even before the big UK Uncut protests, it had already agreed to radically restructure the way it declares its taxes. Comparing that to Schmidt's bombastic comments, we can infer that Google might put up a bit more of a fight.

The thing is, people ought to be boycotting Google, especially their main cash cow, web search. Not because of tax avoidance, but because it makes a terrible product used only through exactly the same inertia which will kill any political action.

Once upon a time, Google search was the unambiguous best. Its page-rank system, which replaced manually editing search results with an ingenious methodology which used links to a site as guarantors of that site's quality, meant that it gave more accurate results than many of its now-defunct (or nearly so) competitors like Alta Vista or Yahoo! Search; its simple UI made it easier to use, as did its massive step up in speed, a fact reflected in its show-off display of how many hundredths of a second the search took.

Most importantly, Google refused to offer paid placement, a relatively common practice at the time which mixed advertising with editorial content: companies would literally pay to appear in the search results for a given keyword.

Those principles lasted a long time; even when Google started "personalising" searches, it was still aimed at reducing bad results. Someone who always clicks on cars after searching for "golf" probably wants different results than someone who clicks on sports sites.

Then came Google+. Terrified by Facebook, the company launched a rival social network, and in an attempt to catch up, decided to leverage its existing businesses. Personalised searches are no longer based just on what you have previously searched for. They're also based on your Google+ contacts, and what they've posted about and discussed. A piece written by someone "big on Google+" – a dubious accolade – can get boosted up the results based just on that; and strangers' faces have started popping up in results, like this:

It's not just the failed attempt at cross-promotion which has damaged Google; it's also been hit by the falling value of web advertising as surely as every other web business. It's responded by increasing the amount of page space devoted to selling things – and correspondingly decreasing the space devoted to it's actual product.

Compare, for example, this from 2005 with this from June this year. Although it's looking at Google US, don't doubt that it's coming your way as well.

There are alternatives. I like DuckDuckGo, which consciously strives to replicate the experience of Google circa 2005 (albeit with a number of powerful below-the-hood improvements). I'm not the only one; the site has shot from an average of 80,000 searches a day in December 2010 to around 1.7m a day this month. But really, it doesn't matter where you go – even if it's to Bing – so long as Google gets the message.

Photograph: Getty Images

Alex Hern is a technology reporter for the Guardian. He was formerly staff writer at the New Statesman. You should follow Alex on Twitter.

Photo: Getty
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Cambridge Analytica and the digital war in Africa

Across the continent, UK expertise is being deployed online to sway elections and target dissidents.

Cambridge Analytica, the British political consultancy caught up in a huge scandal over its use of Facebook data, has boasted that they ran the successful campaigns of President Uhuru Kenyatta in the 2013 and 2017 Kenyan elections. In a secretly filmed video, Mark Turnbull, a managing director for Cambridge Analytica and sister company SCL Elections, told a Channel 4 News’ undercover investigative reporting team that his firm secretly stage-managed Kenyatta’s hotly contested campaigns.

“We have rebranded the entire party twice, written the manifesto, done research, analysis, messaging. I think we wrote all the speeches and we staged the whole thing – so just about every element of this candidate,” Turnbull said of his firm’s work for Kenyatta’s party.

Cambridge Analytica boasts of manipulating voters’ deepest fears and worries. Last year’s Kenyan election was dogged by vicious online propaganda targeting opposition leader Raila Odinga, with images and films playing on people’s concerns about everything from terrorism to spiralling disease. No-one knows who produced the material. Cambridge Analytica denies involvement with these toxic videos – a claim that is hard to square with the company’s boast that they “staged the whole thing.” 

In any event, Kenyatta came to power in 2013 and won a second and final term last August, defeating Odinga by 1.4 million votes.

The work of this British company is only the tip of the iceberg. Another company, the public relations firm, Bell Pottinger, has apologised for stirring up racial hostility in South Africa on behalf of former President Jacob Zuma’s alleged financiers – the Gupta family. Bell Pottinger has since gone out of business.

Some electoral manipulation has been home grown. During the 2016 South African municipal elections the African National Congress established its own media manipulations operation.

Called the “war room” it was the ANC’s own “black ops” centre. The operation ranged from producing fake posters, apparently on behalf of opposition parties, to establishing 200 fake social media “influencers”. The team launched a news site, The New South African, which claimed to be a “platform for new voices offering a different perspective of South Africa”. The propaganda branded opposition parties as vehicles for the rich and not caring for the poor.

While the ANC denied any involvement, the matter became public when the public relations consultant hired by the party went to court for the non-payment of her bill. Among the court papers was an agreement between the claimant and the ANC general manager, Ignatius Jacobs. According to the email, the war room “will require input from the GM [ANC general manager Jacobs] and Cde Nkadimeng [an ANC linked businessman] on a daily basis. The ANC must appoint a political champion who has access to approval, as this is one of the key objectives of the war room.”

Such home-grown digital dirty wars appear to be the exception, rather than the rule, in the rest of Africa. Most activities are run by foreign firms.

Ethiopia, which is now in a political ferment, has turned to an Israeli software company to attack opponents of the government. A Canadian research group, Citizens Lab, reported that Ethiopian dissidents in the US, UK, and other countries were targeted with emails containing sophisticated commercial spyware posing as Adobe Flash updates and PDF plugins.

Citizens Lab says it identified the spyware as a product known as “PC Surveillance System (PSS)”. This is a described as a “commercial spyware product offered by Cyberbit —  an Israel-based cyber security company— and marketed to intelligence and law enforcement agencies.”

This is not the first time Ethiopia has been accused of turning to foreign companies for its cyber-operations. According to Human Rights Watch, this is at least the third spyware vendor that Ethiopia has used to target dissidents, journalists and activists since 2013.

Much of the early surveillance work was reportedly carried out by the Chinese telecom giant, ZTE. More recently it has turned for more advanced surveillance technology from British, German and Italian companies. “Ethiopia appears to have acquired and used United Kingdom and Germany-based Gamma International’s FinFisher and Italy-based Hacking Team’s Remote Control System,” wrote Human Rights Watch in 2014.

Britain’s international development ministry – DFID – boasts that it not only supports good governance but provides funding to back it up. In 2017 the good governance programme had £20 million at its disposal, with an aim is to “help countries as they carry out political and economic reforms.” Perhaps the government should direct some of this funding to investigate just what British companies are up to in Africa, and the wider developing world.

Martin Plaut is a fellow at the Institute of Commonwealth Studies, University of London. He is the author of Understanding Eritrea and, with Paul Holden, the author of Who Rules South Africa?