is the line between tech companies legitimately attempting to
monetize their services through targeted advertising and outright
predatory invasions of personal privacy?
price are you willing to pay to protect your personal information
online? How much power should massive corporations like Google and
Facebook be allowed to have over the flow of information in a free
society? Where is the line between tech companies legitimately
attempting to monetize their services through targeted advertising
and outright predatory invasions of personal privacy? These are
the questions raised by the brilliant new documentary, which had
its Washington D.C. premiere this past Wednesday, “The Creepy
film’s title comes from an infamous utterance of Eric Schmitt, the
former CEO of Google, during a panel discussion on privacy, during
which he smugly stated the following: “There’s what I call the
‘creepy line,’ and the Google policy about a lot of these things
is to get right up to the creepy line but not cross it.” It’s not
exactly a reassuring statement, especially since the only thing
Schmitt went on to mention that would obviously cross this “creepy
line” would be “implanting things in your brain,” a seemingly high
bar, at least as Schmitt noted, “until the technology gets
and confident as Schmitt may have been in his pronouncement at the
time, as is demonstrated at length throughout the film, mega-tech
companies like Google not only go up to this creepy line, but
cross it every single day, in a variety of ways.
film expertly documents these unseemly practices of Big Tech, with
the help of notable figures such as Peter Schweizer, Jordan B.
Peterson, and Dr. Robert Epstein. The latter two have directly
felt the wrath of Google’s arbitrary and pseudo-Orwellian
in particular, shines as a commentator throughout and helps to
make the film more than just another well-made documentary, in
much the same way Shelby Foote’s appearances in Ken Burns’ famous
documentary series “The Civil War” did for that film. Peterson’s
ability to not only expertly communicate complex and technical
ideas but, as a psychologist, to make them relatable and
compelling on an emotional level to the average person is partly
what will help this film raise greater awareness of the issues at
Peterson’s and Epstein’s experiences with censorship are
highlighted in the film, and serve to illustrate just how
transparently unfair and biased Google’s censorship practices
actually are. Peterson’s famous episode, for example, in which he
was not only suspended from YouTube, a platform on which he had
amassed more than 350,000 subscribers at the time, but also had
his Gmail account suddenly suspended, putting over a dozen years
worth of professional and personal correspondence, contacts and
notes in danger of immediate digital oblivion.
was all for a never specified “terms of service” violation which,
given the vagueness of the supposed violation and the utter
tameness of Peterson’s content, one must assume simply meant that
Peterson had been a conservative who had gotten a little more
popular than Google’s censorship commissars would have liked.
deeper problem with such censorship, even beyond the issue of
political or personal bias on behalf of those doing the censoring,
is that private companies like Google have every legal right to
remove any user’s content they please and for any reason they
please, as Peterson points out in the film. But what happens when
a private company becomes so large and hegemonic that it could
essentially erase an individual from the internet? In the 21st
century, that would be almost akin to a utility company
arbitrarily choosing to cut off someone’s electricity.
the most unsettling and, yes, genuinely “creepy” parts of the film
aren’t in its documentation of Google and Facebook’s unethical and
profit-driven harvesting of users’ personal data (including the
private information of children) or even its detailed examination
of Big Tech’s draconian and muddleheaded campaign of censorship
against conservative-leaning media outlets and individuals, but in
its look into how Google’s search algorithms and Facebook’s
personally curated news feeds can alter our perceptions of the
world and, ultimately, perhaps our very consciousness.
most overt and immediately concerning example of this manipulation
of human consciousness manifests itself in the way search engines
and social media companies are able to directly affect, and
potentially even determine, the outcomes of modern democratic
elections. As the filmmakers documented, this manipulation can
seem almost entirely invisible and go unnoticed by most users, as
it largely takes the form of biased search results that favor
particular political candidates over others.
may initially seem like a rather minor issue, but as Epstein
elucidates in the film, such algorithmic bias can actually have
profound, statistically significant, and measurable effects on
voters’ opinions, and thus, on electoral outcomes as well.
Harvard-trained Epstein’s work, comprised of many well documented
and professionally done experiments on the social and political
effects of search engine manipulation, serve as a cornerstone of
the film’s narrative. Epstein has referred to this as the “Search
Engine Manipulation Effect.” The effect was based on the findings
of a series of double-blind, randomized, and controlled
experiments, which used more than 4,500 undecided voters of
various political persuasions from two countries (The United
States and India). It was led by Epstein and published in the
Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences journal.
research found that simple manipulation of search result rankings,
by adding either positive or negative results on any particular
candidate, resulted in anywhere from a 20 to 60 percent swing in
the proportion of voters favoring any one particular candidate.
This easily gives companies like Google the ability to easily
swing a modern election, most of which are decided by far slimmer
the standard response from libertarians and neoliberal
free-marketeers to such deeply problematic issues is usually to
simply appeal to the inherent goodness of the unimpeded free
market and hope that competitors arise to challenge Google and
Facebook’s domination of our digital mindspace, in practice such
advice is little more than feeble obfuscation that ignores the
severity of the problem.
truth is that both Google and Facebook surpassed monopoly status
in their respective fields of business years ago and, unlike the
more conventional monopolies of the past, this has resulted in
more than just negative financial or privacy outcomes for
individual consumers. In fact, given both the scope of their
domination and the unique power of the technologies they have now
harnessed, the legitimacy of our system of government and even our
understanding of reality may now be at risk and at the mercy of
the strange, neuro-atypical, and indeed creepy individuals who
control Big Tech — individuals like Mark Zuckerberg. It’s a
there is one area where the film is wanting, it is in offering
prescriptions for the problems it manages to describe so well.
Then again, the filmmaker’s stated position was that the film was
meant to diagnose the problem with Big Tech’s hegemonic control of
our personal data and its arbitrary power to squash free speech,
and in so doing to hopefully foster a national conversation on the
issue, not to offer solutions to the deep structural problems and
perverse incentives that plague the modern internet, many of which
have existed almost since its inception.
potential solutions are indeed sorely needed, however, as the
problems created by the greed and unethical practices of tech
giants like Google and Facebook increasingly undermine not only
our privacy and freedom of speech, but also our ability to govern
ourselves as free people.
deeper problem at play is that while politically progressive
groupthink has certainly played a role, the real motivation (the
drive for ever greater profits) has been incentivized by the very
nature and structure of the contemporary internet. As the film
wisely points out, no service is truly “free.” You’re either
purchasing a product or you are the product.
long as the revenues of giant search engines and social media
companies are dependent solely on targeted advertising, which
relies on gathering users’ personal information, and in lieu of
serious government regulations to protect the privacy and free
speech of consumers, the dangerous abuses documented in “The
Creepy Line” will likely continue unabated.
DeCarlo is a freelance writer living in Washington D.C.