An Open Letter to Sundar Pichai
13 July 2021
On TV last night, I watched your interview with the BBC, which is now available on BBC iPlayer and Sounds. The stories are nice, the questions were great, and it was entertaining. But for progress we need the right actions, which is why I am writing to you today.
Now I don’t share the common Tamil Nadu heritage that you do with the interviewer Amol Rajan. Still, my roots are quite humble too, and I come from small-scale farming in the North of England. You have travelled further, and like me to Silicon Valley, though I never had a desire to stay. Even after living in Mountain View for a while and making frequent business trips to the Bay Area since 1988.
It’s clear we have much in common, from a passion about access to information and freedom of expression, to involvement in AI and quantum computers. We both have uncompleted PhDs. We both advocate for a free and open internet, even if our approach is different; Google tracks, Mojeek does not. It has brought us a better world and as optimists, we still believe it will continue to do so. We probably agree that it is under attack by political forces.
Despite all our similarities, we also see things quite differently when it comes to choice, competition, and innovation. The problem with search engines, and in particular Google, cannot be ignored. You may also believe that the developing crisis will benefit your cause further and decide to work with governments instead of other search companies and people.
Amazon is eating your lunch in shopping and Apple is eating your lunch in devices. I know you are feeling under pressure. Do we have to feel sorry for you since you don't dominate the eCommerce and smartphone markets like you dominate Search? There was a time when many companies hoped to monopolize particular sectors in a single country. You have become too greedy and taken your eyes off the ball after monopolizing search internationally (outside of China).
So let me help you and explain how search engines may play a role in the problems which people and governments see:
- When in human history was it healthy to have one dominant source of information?
- You may think of the Bible, the Vedas, or the Quran. Is it good to have one answer engine to rule us all? Do you think today's world is unique?
- Is it good to have access to information discovery through one lens; the lens of one search algorithm and AI, which users know very little about?
- Do you really think that AI can, as you say in the interview “give that one answer out of the billions of articles on the web” for web search queries?
I agree with you that the free and open internet has been a force for good. In many countries, this model is under attack. This is particularly true in India, your country of birth, as well as here in the UK, my country of birth.
Are you concerned that the Indian government may block search engines and search services (eg DuckDuckGo - as was done in July 2020)? If so, what can we do together to prevent this from happening again?
Through its Online Safety Bill, the UK government believes it can take a global lead in dealing with "harmful" content. Evidently, the draft Bill is primarily motivated by a desire to fix social media, specifically Facebook. There are fewer than ten CEOs who run international search engine companies, so we are not being heard enough. This bill can harm search and thus society, the economy, and democracy. Therefore, with regard to this draft Bill:
- Do you agree that it is an attack on the free and open internet?
- Is this an unjustified attack on search when it should only apply to image and video searches?
- Do you agree that it does not show a sufficient comprehension of search engines and the market for these products?
- Will you join us in questioning the wisdom of delegating the curation of “harmful to adult” content to us, as search engine companies?
- Will you also call for governments to debate, decide and legislate for what is “harmful to adults content” and clearly classify it as “legal” or “illegal”? In other words not leave this definition to us, and to arbitrary requests and pressure from them, and as suits them at any particular moment.
We hope you will agree that addressing these issues and questions together will be helpful. I would be happy to discuss these topics, especially the UK Bill. This is as a matter of urgency as the Bill is about to be scrutinised in detail; you may contact me at colin(at)mojeek(dot)com.
According to Article 19 of the UN Declaration of Human Rights, "Everyone has the right to ...freedom to seek, receive and impart information and ideas regardless of frontiers.” As search engine companies, we play a key role in enabling a healthier information economy and society. As a result, we can both mitigate ill-informed, though sometimes well-intended, attacks by political forces on the Internet.
No Tracking. Just Search...
13 July 2021