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The Internet Never Forgets: How Google Shapes and Cements Our Identities

13 June 2022

I remember sneaking downstairs to use the computer. I was 11, personal computers weren’t really a thing yet. I couldn’t use the computers at school because I was afraid a teacher would discover my search history. We had a computer at home, but it was in the hallway. That’s why I had to wait until everyone was asleep to google “lesbian” to find out why another girl in our year had been called that word.

We use the internet to discover ourselves. Whether we like it or not, Google shapes that process of discovery. 84.2% of all desktop searches in the United Kingdom originate from Google. In this piece I want to highlight two challenges that arise from Google’s overwhelming influence on how we gather information online: the first is about how Google structures our access to information and the second is about the reach of Google’s algorithm coupled with the permanence of online content.

The first challenge has been well documented by many, most notably by Safiya Noble in her book, Algorithms of Oppression: How Search Engines Reinforce Racism. Noble’s book concerns how the structures of oppression present in the physical world replicate themselves in online spaces. The internet has a power to not only shape, but also to distort our understanding of ourselves. For example, consider the experience that prompted Noble to write her book. At a loss for interesting activities to do with her stepdaughter and nieces, she turned, like we all do, to the internet for help. Alas, as she writes, her “search on the keywords “black girls” yielded HotBlackPussy.com as the first hit.”

Our self-understanding is deeply influenced by other people, and “other people” has come to encompass the internet as well. Some of us were raised in environments surrounded by people very different from us, with few who shared our interests and values, and some actively hostile to them. It was through the internet that many of us were first able to find real, supportive community. It is not only other persons in our physical proximity that affect who we become, we also search for ourselves online and what the internet says about us can have an influence over our understanding of ourselves. But as Noble’s experience speaks to, the internet can also reinforce dehumanizing narratives about those very same identities. Imagine if the top results for “lesbian” led one to sites promoting conversion therapy. Or as recently depicted in Heartstopper, what if the search for “Am I gay?” prominently displayed hate crimes against the LGBTQIA+ community as the top results? If the only narratives available to you of what it means to be gay involve being assaulted or “corrected”, then it becomes very difficult to accept that identity as part of yourself. Or worse, it may cause you to internalize that negativity as about you.

To see how the internet has come to have this power, consider the success of Google’s PageRank algorithm. This algorithm set Google apart from other search engines and has made ‘Google’ synonymous with the process of searching itself. Inspired by academic citations, where the number of citations a paper has is taken as an indication of its importance and influence, Larry Page and Sergey Brin extended this logic to hyperlinks on the web. The algorithm prioritizes sources that are linked from other sources. This algorithm allowed Google to sort search results such that well-established sources would appear higher in the results than random blogs (AI generated blogs have changed things recently). If you weren’t around for the early days of the internet, you’ll just have to trust me when I say that this was a huge improvement—finally one could reliably sort through the noise that is the web! AskJeeves never stood a chance.

This now brings me to the second challenge: the reach of Google’s algorithm coupled with  the permanence of online content. The influence of Google on our lives can be felt even before we’re born. Consider the plot point in Kim’s Convenience where Janet, upon trying to make a website to showcase her photography, wishes her parents had given her a more unique name so her website would appear higher in the search results. Janet can’t stand out because there’s a vast sea of Janet Kim’s who’ve all been archived and indexed by Google. The permanence of the internet makes it harder to stand out. With these types of considerations in mind, parents are vetting their name choices by Googling them first. Given  that Google’s search results display gender and race biases, it doesn’t take much work to imagine the inequalities that will be exacerbated as well-off parents carefully curate their children’s online personas so the algorithms prioritize them for the best paying jobs.

The incentive structure of the internet is to preserve everything. We used to be able to rely on a certain level of social forgetfulness either because of the human limitations of memory or the impermanence of our prior storage systems like paper. Many of us have likely artfully forgotten some embarrassing moment in order to save a friend’s dignity. But the importance of this kind of forgetting is disappearing as large corporations have monetized information through the monetization of data. In other work, I’ve written about how a racist world tends us toward racist beliefs, but the digital world shaped by Google’s informational-access monopoly poses a harder problem. At least the physical world, and in turn the basis for our beliefs, can be changed. The internet, on the other hand, is much harder to change. Why? Because the internet never forgets.

However, not everything should be remembered. We should be the ones in control of our information and how it gets used. For one step in the right direction consider the EU’s General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) which gives individuals the right to have personal data erased provided certain circumstances are met. More radically, perhaps there should be a statute of limitations on how long the internet can remember things about us. Combining the second challenge with the first, our identity is also shaped by what people know about us and we should have some control over what they get to learn about us. There are some things about us that have an expiration date and shouldn’t follow us around constraining our futures.