Nadia Eghbal

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With Great Scale Comes Great Responsibility

When scraper sites and content farms began to creep their way up the search rankings, Google released the first of its infamous Panda algorithm updates in 2011 to stop them.

When Farmville notifications threatened to overtake our news feeds, Facebook turned the frequency down. The same thing happened with Upworthy-style news articles and meme photos, so viral that they threatened to become a pandemic.

To help us wade through marketing emails to get to our “real” email, Google released a number of changes to Gmail, including the promotion tab and a handy unsubscribe button from the inbox.

These actions suggest that these companies understand their unique position to provide quality control to the Internet. They are more than just another tool or product that we use; they’re a gatekeeper to our experience in the online world.

We don’t want to think twice about having to sort through a crappy newsfeed, inbox, or list of search results to find what we’re really looking for. We just want it to be there. For the most part, these gatekeepers have excelled at that.

Which is why it’s frustrating to read about them using their power in seemingly oblivious ways.

Earlier last week, Google released an update to Google Maps. If you have the Uber app installed on your phone, you will now see - in addition to walking, biking, driving, or taking public transportation - an option to take an Uber. It hasn’t escaped anyone’s notice that Uber is a portfolio company of Google Ventures.

A few days later, Amazon was accused of throttling access to books from publisher Hachette in order to negotiate better discounts - reporting them as out of stock, removing them from their recommendations, and saying it will take 3-4 weeks for delivery, despite Hachette’s insistence that they are fulfilling their Amazon orders on time.

Amazon’s behavior with publishers has been going on for years. It’s not unlike the longstanding accusations from local businesses that Yelp manipulates their reviews unless they pay for advertising, or Facebook deprecating content from business pages unless they pay for advertising.

This behavior is unacceptable, and we should call it out when we see it.

With great scale comes great responsibility. Whether conscious or not, the public relies upon these companies to preserve the neutrality of the internet and keep it a safe and fair space.

Turning down the volume on spammy game notifications, news articles, and low-quality content helps build the public’s trust. Putting personal priorities over public interest destroys that trust, in addition to threatening the rules of capitalism and competition law that keeps our society running like a democracy.

A tiny bookstore favoring strategic partnerships should come as no surprise to anyone. But when it’s a store the size of Amazon - controlling more than a third of book trade in the United States - they should know better.