No, that’s not an exaggeration. The fact is, if you’re desperate and particularly if you’re unsophisticated, the algorithms and incentives Google uses to optimize search results or commands can lead to harmful and potentially fatal results.
Let’s say you’re a drug addict or alcoholic who wants to come clean. You search Google looking for treatment centers. The top result gives you a toll-free number to call. You call it, give the operator your insurance information, and set up a time slot to begin your detox.
But when you arrive, the facility doesn’t resemble what you thought it would. It’s a dilapidated hotel hastily converted into a detox center. The facility is overcrowded, and the staff struggles to help patients with their medical issues.
In this well-documented scenario, it’s possible you could become frustrated and relapse. You might even become one of the 95,000 people who die each year in the United States from alcoholism, or the more than 107,000 who die from a drug overdose.
And it’s not a coincidence. In 2017, investigators at The Verge found that Google search results could be manipulated by shady marketers to lure drug addicts and alcoholics to con artists who would persuade them to sign up for treatment at shoddy rehab centers.
While Google doesn’t cheat addicts directly, the companies that do depend on the search giant to boost them to the top of search results. And it’s no accident – they pay Google considerable sums of money to ensure their ad-supported results are the first thing searchers see.
A skeptic might point to the fact that the information we’re relating dates back to 2017. Perhaps since then, we hoped, Alphabet, Google’s parent company, had cleaned up its act and was no longer referring addicts seeking detox services to companies paying it big bucks to appear at the top of search results.
And it turns out that after The Verge exposé, Google temporarily ended the ability for addiction treatment centers and providers to pay the company to boost search results. But the practice resumed a year later, albeit with some safeguards in place to prevent abuse.
So, we decided to do some research of our own. Here’s a screen shot of what we found when we searched “Arizona rehab” on DuckDuckGo, which bills itself as “the all-in-one privacy app that helps protect your online activities.”
The results are a bit hard to read, but all appear to be legitimate Arizona-based rehab facilities.
We then ran the identical search on Google. Here’s what we found:
Again, the results are a bit hard to read, but you’ll notice that all the top results are ad-supported. One of them makes it clear you have to have the right insurance (no Medicaid or AHCCS, the state agency that administers Medicaid in Arizona). That’s hardly a smoking gun, but it’s clear to us that it would likely be safer for an addict seeking treatment in Arizona to search for it on DuckDuckGo, not Google.
Now, you might think that we’re unfairly picking on Google, the company which until 2015 had the phrase “don’t be evil” as the preface to its corporate code of conduct and its unofficial motto. When Google restructured itself to become Alphabet, the new entity began using the phrase “do the right thing” as its motto.
But in fact, Google/Alphabet’s business model is based not only on extracting the maximum amount of revenue from advertising businesses seeking high placement in search results, but on monetizing every data point about the billions of consumers who use its services. As we pointed out in a 2018 article suggesting to readers it was “time to say goodbye to Google,” a leaked training video from Google suggests that:
Google believes you do not own the data about you, but that you are merely a “transient carrier” of it. What’s more, Google suggests that over time, it could provide “more inputs” to the ledger with the goal of modifying your behavior.
When Google acquired marketing network DoubleClick in 2007, the company’s founder, Sergey Brin, promised that privacy would be our “number one priority when we contemplate new kinds of advertising products.”
But as we pointed out:
A decade later, Google changed its terms of service to state that your browsing habits “may be” combined with other data to which Google has access. This includes the contents of your Gmail messages, records of your Google Maps searches, your Google calendar appointments, and anything else it can scrape from your browsing records.
Fortunately, if you want to disconnect completely from Google, alternatives are available. For instance, we’re big fans of the DuckDuckGo search engine, although we disagree with the company’s decision to censor search results of supposed Russian disinformation. To pay for itself, DuckDuckGo displays advertising, but it’s not based on the contents of your searches, and your search history always remains private. DuckDuckGo also has a capable Maps feature, and it’s a good replacement for Google Maps.
As a Gmail replacement, we think Swiss-based Protonmail is a worthy alternative. It provides end-to-end encryption for all messages delivered on its network and doesn’t share the content of your messages with anyone. Because of the way Protonmail is designed, the company can’t deliver your messages in an unencrypted form even if it receives a court order to do so.
As with everything else privacy-related, Big Brother and Big Business have a vested interest in keeping tabs on you. Not only is it profitable but an up-to-date and retrievable ledger makes it simple to monitor you if you ever step out of line.
No one will protect your privacy for you – you need to do it on your own. Now would be a good time to start.