Updated at 11:45 a.m. ET on October 7, 2023
Living online means never quite understanding what’s happening to you at a given moment. Why these search results? Why this product recommendation? There is a feeling—often warranted, sometimes conspiracy-minded—that we are constantly manipulated by platforms and websites.
So-called dark patterns, deceptive bits of web design that can trick people into certain choices online, make it harder to unsubscribe from a scammy or unwanted newsletter; they nudge us into purchases. Algorithms optimized for engagement shape what we see on social media and can goad us into participation by showing us things that are likely to provoke strong emotional responses. But although we know that all of this is happening in aggregate, it’s hard to know specifically how large technology companies exert their influence over our lives.
This week, Wired published a story by the former FTC attorney Megan Gray that illustrates the dynamic in a nutshell. The op-ed argued that Google alters user searches to include more lucrative keywords. For example, Google is said to surreptitiously replace a query for “children’s clothing” with “NIKOLAI-brand kidswear” on the back end in order to direct users to lucrative shopping links on the results page. It’s an alarming allegation, and Ned Adriance, a spokesperson for Google, told me that it’s “flat-out false.” Gray, who is also a former vice president of the Google Search competitor DuckDuckGo, had seemingly misinterpreted a chart that was briefly presented during the company’s ongoing U.S. et al v. Google trial, in which the company is defending itself against charges that it violated federal antitrust law. (That chart, according to Adriance, represents a “phrase match” feature that the company uses for its ads product; “Google does not delete queries and replace them with ones that monetize better as the opinion piece suggests, and the organic results you see in Search are not affected by our ads systems,” he said.)
Gray told me, “I stand by my larger point—the Google Search team and Google ad team worked together to secretly boost commercial queries, which triggered more ads and thus revenue. Google isn’t contesting this, as far as I know.” In a statement, Chelsea Russo, another Google spokesperson, reiterated that the company’s products do not work this way and cited testimony from Google VP Jerry Dischler that “the organic team does not take data from the ads team in order to affect its ranking and affect its result.” Wired did not respond to a request for comment. Last night, the publication removed the story from its website, noting that it does not meet Wired’s editorial standards.
It’s hard to know what to make of these competing statements. Gray’s specific facts may be wrong, but the broader concerns about Google’s business—that it makes monetization decisions that could lead the product to feel less useful or enjoyable—form the heart of the government’s case against the company. None of this is easy to untangle in plain English—in fact, that’s the whole point of the trial. For most of us, evidence about Big Tech’s products tends to be anecdotal or fuzzy—more vibes-based than factual. Google may not be altering billions of queries in the manner that the Wired story suggests, but the company is constantly tweaking and ranking what we see, while injecting ads and proprietary widgets into our feed, thereby altering our experience. And so we end up saying that Google Search is less useful now or that shopping on Amazon has gotten worse. These tools are so embedded in our lives that we feel acutely that something is off, even if we can’t put our finger on the technical problem.
That’s changing. In the past month, thanks to a series of antitrust actions on behalf of the federal government, hard evidence of the ways that Silicon Valley’s biggest companies are wielding their influence is trickling out. Google’s trial is under way, and while the tech giant is trying to keep testimony locked down, the past four weeks have helped illustrate—via internal company documents and slide decks like the one cited by Wired—how Google has used its war chest to broker deals and dominate the search market. Perhaps the specifics of Gray’s essay were off, but we have learned, for instance, how company executives considered adjusting Google’s products to lead to more “monetizable queries.” And just last week, the Federal Trade Commission filed a lawsuit against Amazon alleging anticompetitive practices. (Amazon has called the suit “misguided.”)
Filings related to that suit have delivered a staggering revelation concerning a secretive Amazon algorithm code-named Project Nessie. The particulars of Nessie were heavily redacted in the public complaint, but this week The Wall Street Journal revealed details of the program. According to the unredacted complaint, a copy of which I have also viewed, Nessie—which is no longer in use—monitored industry prices of specific goods to determine whether competitors were algorithmically matching Amazon’s prices. In the event that competitors were, Nessie would exploit this by systematically raising prices on goods across Amazon, encouraging its competitors to follow suit. Amazon, via the algorithm, knew that it would be able to charge more on its own site, because it didn’t have to worry about being undercut elsewhere, thereby making the broader online shopping experience worse for everyone. An Amazon spokesperson told the Journal that the FTC is mischaracterizing the tool, and suggested that Nessie was a way to monitor competitor pricing and keep price-matching algorithms from dropping prices to unsustainable levels (the company did not respond to my request for comment).
In the FTC’s telling, Project Nessie demonstrates the sheer scope of Amazon’s power in online markets. The project arguably amounted to a form of unilateral price fixing, where Amazon essentially goaded its competitors into acting like cartel members without even knowing they’d done so—all while raising prices on consumers. It’s an astonishing form of influence, powered by behind-the-scenes technology.
The government will need to prove whether this type of algorithmic influence is illegal. But even putting legality aside, Project Nessie is a sterling example of the way that Big Tech has supercharged capitalistic tendencies and manipulated markets in unnatural and opaque ways. It demonstrates the muscle that a company can throw around when it has consolidated its position in a given sector. The complaint alleges that Amazon’s reach and logistics capabilities force third-party sellers to offer products on Amazon and for lower prices than other retailers. Once it captured a significant share of the retail market, Amazon was allegedly able to use algorithmic tools such as Nessie to drive prices up for specific products, boosting revenues and manipulating competitors.
Reading about Project Nessie, I was surprised to feel a sense of relief. In recent years, customer-satisfaction ratings have dipped among Amazon shoppers who have cited delivery disruptions, an explosion of third-party sellers, and poor-quality products as reasons for frustration. In my own life and among friends and relatives, there has been a growing feeling that shopping on the platform has become a slog, with fewer deals and far more junk to sift through. Again, these feelings tend to occupy vibe territory: Amazon’s bigness seems stifling or grating in ways that aren’t always easy to explain. But Nessie offers a partial explanation for this frustration, as do revelations about Google’s various product adjustments. We have the sense that we’re being manipulated because, well, we are. It’s a bit like feeling vaguely sick, going to the doctor, and receiving a blood-test result confirming that, yes, the malaise you experienced is actually an iron deficiency. It is the catharsis of, at long last, receiving a diagnosis.
This is the true power of the surge in anti-monopoly litigation. (According to experts in the field, September was “the most extraordinary month they have ever seen in antitrust.”) Whether or not any of these lawsuits results in corporate breakups or lasting change, they are, effectively, an MRI of our sprawling digital economy—a forensic look at what these larger-than-life technology companies are really doing, and how they are exerting their influence and causing damage. It is confirmation that what so many of us have felt—that the platforms dictating our online experiences are behaving unnaturally and manipulatively—is not merely a paranoid delusion, but the effect of an asymmetrical relationship between the giants of scale and us, the users.
In recent years, it’s been harder to love the internet, a miracle of connectivity that feels ever more bloated, stagnant, commercialized, and junkified. We are just now starting to understand the specifics of this transformation—the true influence of Silicon Valley’s vise grip on our lives. It turns out that the slow rot we might feel isn’t just in our heads, after all.