Is Google’s Search Dominance Unfair? (And What Does That Mean for Families?)

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Google it.

In the world today, that simple two-word phrase is shorthand for finding out something on the internet. We all say it. And for the most part, we all do it. I know I use Google about 50 times a day during the course of my work and writing. I spend more time with Google than I spend with some of my best friends.

But should it be that way?

The U.S. Justice Department is expected to file an antitrust lawsuit against the search engine behemoth today, alleging that Google is trying to protect its own search monopoly with some pretty anticompetitive practices. That includes using some of the billions of dollars it collects from its own ads to deter other browsers and search engines. According to Fox Business, the suit  will “mark the most aggressive U.S. legal challenge to a company’s dominance in the tech sector in more than two decades, with the potential to shake up Silicon Valley and beyond.”

We won’t get any resolution on this anticipated lawsuit anytime soon, of course. These things take time. But the suit does remind me of an important principle we should all be mindful of: In the Information Age, it’s critical to know not only how to access that information, but where it’s coming from … and why.

A couple of weeks ago, panelists on The Plugged In Show discussed The Social Dilemma, a Netflix documentary on the negative influence of social media. Plugged In Director Adam Holz wrote a blog on the subject, too. In that blog, he quoted tech genius Jaron Lanier, who said, “If you’re not paying for the product, then you are the product.”

Google, of course, does not charge you to access the internet. It gives you the keys to pretty much the whole digitized universe. And, of course, it offers a bevy of other free resources, too—from email accounts to word-processing programs to cloud-based storage. You could, theoretically, do almost everything you’d want or need to do online without ever leaving Google’s ecosphere. And Google would very much like that.

But, of course, Google does ask for something in return: It asks for our information. It wants to know as much about each of us as possible: what we do, where we go, what toaster pastries we like to eat. All that information is how Google feeds its own sprawling, multi-billion-dollar conglomerate.

But there’s another issue in play, too—especially for parents. When we use just one doorway to access the internet’s sprawling worlds of information, we’re also tacitly giving whoever owns that doorway a certain amount of power. Google serves up the links and content that, yes, it thinks will be most helpful to us. But it also serves up the links it wants us to use. It serves up its favorite links (including those of its advertisers) on its very first page of search results, and it’s a rare user that bothers to click to the second. And some of the corners it points to could be incredibly unsavory—especially for children.

Now, are Google’s links inherently suspect? Maybe, maybe not, and maybe it depends on the search. As I say, I rely on Google quite a bit for my own research. But as parents, I think we always have to be mindful of the messages the culture doles out to us and our children. We’re wary of what schools teach. We worry over what our kids’ peers might be communicating. We’re deeply mindful over the messages communicated by entertainment. Why, this whole ministry is built on that kind of intentionality.

So why shouldn’t we parents be especially mindful over the most ubiquitous information portal of all? We should be the gatekeepers to the information that our children get—not Google.

Moms and Dads have so much to pay attention to these days, and this blog may feel like we’re reminding you of just one more thing to worry about. But don’t be afraid. Just be aware. Understand that Google, like pretty much everyone and everything out there, has its own agenda. If that agenda bothers you, or if your worried it might steer you in the wrong directions, you have some other options. FactMonster.com offers a window to plenty of educational tools and games (often delineated by grade level). If you’re concerned about people tracking your kids, DuckDuckGo is a search engine that doesn’t track users or store their search history. (But note: Because it’s not designed for kids, it can take users to some ooky places, and its anonymity can be a double-edged sword.)

And the web is filled with search engines designed especially for children, too, which won’t take them to explicit sites but will allow them to research, create and play. Check out, for instance, Kid’s Search, KidRex or Kiddle.  

Of Course, most kid-friendly search engines, regardless of the name, are either sponsored by Google or have Google functionality baked right into them. Which, I suppose, illustrates the point of this blog: Even when you stay away from the search engine itself, you may still wind up Googling it.

Paul Asay

Paul Asay has been part of the Plugged In staff since 2007, watching and reviewing roughly 15 quintillion movies and television shows. He’s written for a number of other publications, too, including Time, The Washington Post and Christianity Today. The author of several books, Paul loves to find spirituality in unexpected places, including popular entertainment, and he loves all things superhero. His vices include James Bond films, Mountain Dew and terrible B-grade movies. He’s married, has two children and a neurotic dog, runs marathons on occasion and hopes to someday own his own tuxedo. Feel free to follow him on Twitter @AsayPaul.