Last week Google told the Claremont Institute that the Institute’s advertisements for its annual conference were banned. This act of censorship by the internet giant followed Facebook’s announcement that it was banning Milo Yiannopoulos, Alex Jones, Louis Farrakhan, and Paul Watson. Ryan P. Williams, the president of the Claremont Institute, posted his account of what happened, “Algorithms of Suppression,” on The American Mind.
Google has now backed down and said the ban was “a mistake.” Google didn’t discern an error when Claremont first protested, but then it had a Boeing-like epiphany. Maybe banning the advertisements of one of the leading intellectual bodies in the United States was not the best idea.
Facebook’s decision to ban Yiannopoulos and other individuals who were engaged in lawful exercises of free speech was itself alarming. Google’s assault on the Claremont Institute was something more than alarming. It suggests that Google is ready and willing to suppress the free expression of anyone who challenges the dogmas of the political left. Stanley Kurtz, writing in The National Review, Google’s Attack on the Claremont Institute Must Not Stand, gave full cry to these implications. He wrote: “To prevent conservatives from defending constitutional principles as they understand them is to ban America itself.”
But Google now says it was all a mistake.
Nothing to see here. Move along.
Algorithms, however, don’t write themselves, and low-level employees don’t wield power to blot out the free expression of one of the nation’s most respected think tanks. Google’s misadventure with banning Claremont’s advertisements deserves more attention and deeper reflection.
Here’s a start. Google, founded in 1998, is a publicly traded company, but the majority of its shares are owned by Larry Page (27 percent) and Sergey Brin (26.9 percent). Alphabet, its parent company, is valued at $739 billion. If Google were a nation, it would be among the twenty wealthiest in the world, ahead of Saudi Arabia and Switzerland. Google operates almost everywhere and dominates the search engine marketplace with a thoroughness that would have been the envy of Standard Oil in the days of the robber barons. Literally: Before the trustbusters divided Standard Oil, it controlled 64 percent of the refining industry. Google’s market share is 90.46 percent worldwide. People perform about 5.6 billion Google searches per day.
Which is just a reminder that Google is immensely wealthy, immensely powerful, and at this point in our history, indispensable to developed economies and to most of us who work in those economies. Some of those details may not be in your active memory, but surely you know the general picture. Google has the power to exert far-reaching influence over the social and political order—and Google knows it. As Larry Page writes: “As Sergey and I wrote in the original founder’s letter 11 years ago, ‘Google is not a conventional company. We do not intend to become one.’”
Unconventionality might be a good thing. But is that unconventional in the manner of Nikola Tesla or unconventional in the spirit of Captain Nemo, Dr. Doom, and other utopians who came to believe that they could impose their own brands of social justice on humanity? Note that I cite fictional versions of the would-be world conquerors. Let’s not be in a hurry to say that Page and Brin have planted themselves in any particular world-conquering ideology. Rather, they have so far shown themselves thoroughly conventional in their tastes for feminism, environmentalism, multiculturalism, and profits.
Google’s headquarters outside San Francisco is an hour and twenty minutes flight to the Claremont Institute outside Los Angeles. The Claremont Institute, founded in 1979, has a staff of about twenty and publishes the Claremont Review of Books. It sponsors debates and symposia, runs three fellowship programs. Its annual expenses run about $5 million.
At one level, it is understandable that Google might mistake the Claremont Institute for a grain of sand in its sandal. But that would indeed be a mistake. The Claremont Institute is the principal voice of a large branch of conservative thought in America. It is the branch that takes the Declaration of Independence and the idea that “All men are created equal” as the founding concept of our nation. Claremont conservatism can be contrasted to other varieties that emphasize individual liberty or that prioritize the creation of wealth.
The Claremont vision, which owes a great deal to President Lincoln, finds the greatest peril to the nation in the rise of post-national doctrines. At the center of these post-national ideas is multiculturalism, that congeries of identity groups and victim narratives that have found their political home in the current Democratic Party. The Claremont folks have spent decades trying to address the philosophical predicates of politics rather than allying themselves to a party, and they resist the rising tide of multiculturalism and identity politics.
To the extent that Google can be said to have an ideology, multiculturalism is it. Google fired engineer James Damore for his essay, “Google’s Ideological Echo Chamber,” which the company rated a violation of its Code of Conduct. Generally, what Damore did was express doubts about multiculturalism.
No need to belabor this. One of the world’s most powerful companies dislikes the expressions of doubts about multiculturalism. One of America’s most intellectually sophisticated think tanks has such doubts. Google decided to exercise a little of its power to put that think tank in its place. Or the Google algorithm did. Or some Google factotum operating out of a Damore-proof safe space did. Chances are we will never know. But we have all been warned: if you have some doubts about multiculturalism, maybe you should keep them to yourself.
Too late for me. I have a lot of such doubts.