Google, Amazon and Plato’s Cave

How to find autonomy in the age of algorithms

It is vital to preserve the right for individuals to have control over their online experiences. A way to ensure that peoples choices and preferences are respected by technology platforms is advocating end-to-end principles. This would represent a return to the original spirit of the internet, where users have more control over what they see and receive, rather than being subject to manipulation or prioritization by platforms for their own gain, writes Cory Doctorow.


Cory Doctorow will be speaking at the IAI's upcoming music and ideas festival HowTheLightGetsIn alongside Daniel Dennett, Brian Greene, Fiona Hill, Roger Penrose and many, many more. Explore the full programme and book your tickets here.


"Advertising funded search engines will be inherently biased towards the advertisers and away from the needs of consumers."

Larry Page & Sergey Brin

The internet succeeded where other networks failed. Where there were once many nets – cable, phone, leased-line – now there is just The Net, which runs over many of the same substrates, but which has subsumed them all. The secret of the internet’s success was to reduce, reduce, reduce. If we can’t agree on the right way to do x, perhaps we can agree on the right way to do y, upon which we might someday build x? Take a smaller step, agree on a foundation, keep decomposing a seemingly monolithic technological project into ever-smaller pieces until we find one that we can all agree on. Build that, then do it again, finding another step that everyone can get behind.

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The only way to eat an elephant is one bite at a time.

It worked. Sometimes, we even figured out that we didn’t need to build the whole thing – sometimes a ‘‘partial’’ solution was sufficient. As one of Brian Eno’s Oblique Strategies has it: ‘‘Be the first person to not do something that no one else has ever thought of not doing before.’’ That’s what happened with email. For a long time, the Email Problem was how to validate senders, so that if you got an email from someone purporting to be me, you could be sure that it wasn’t an impersonation.

Here’s something I think we should all agree upon: when a willing speaker wants to say something to a willing listener, our technology should be de­signed to make a best effort to deliver the speaker’s message to the person who asked to get it. I hope this is self-evidently true. When you dial a phone number, the phone company’s job is to connect you to that number, not to someone else. When you call Tony’s Pizza, you expect to be connected to Tony’s Pizza – not to Domino’s, not even if Domino’s is willing to pay for the privilege. When you use your TV remote to tune into CNN, you don’t want your cable operator to show you Fox instead – not even if Fox will pay them to do so. If you follow someone on social media, then the things that person says should show up in your timeline.

That is not a radical proposition, but it is also not the case today. Facebook, Twitter, TikTok, YouTube and other dominant social media platforms treat the list of people we follow as suggestions, not commands. When you identify a list of people you want to hear from, the platform uses that as training data for suggestions that only incidentally contain the messages that the people you subscribed to. There are various reasons for this, but they all boil down to the platform shifting value away from its users to its shareholders.


The opposite of network discrimination is net neutrality, Tim Wu’s useful coinage that is really just another name for the end-to-end principle


But there’s another group of people who can pay to reach you – the people you’ve chosen to follow. When you subscribe to a performer, or a news outlet, or a political group, they have to pay to ensure that the things they publish show up for you. The platforms have cute names for this danegeld (‘‘boost­ing,’’ etc), but it boils down to the phone company telling Tony’s Pizza, ‘‘If you don’t pay us extra, then every time someone calls Tony’s, we’re going to connect them to Domino’s.’’ Thus, the enshittification of your feed is only partially about showing you ads: it’s also about making the people you want to hear from pay to reach you. This shouldn’t be allowed. The services should make their best effort to deliver messages from willing senders to willing receivers.

This principle can be generalized to other kinds of online services. When you search for a product on Amazon, the first result should be the product you searched for, not an Amazon own-brand clone of that product, or the product of a rival that paid for the privilege of being at the top of the results. The argument about whether Amazon should be cloning its sellers’ prod­ucts is a complex and thorny one. The question of whether Amazon should trick you into clicking on something you didn’t search for is much simpler. They shouldn’t be allowed to do this. It is an ‘‘unfair and deceptive practice’’ and it is already illegal under Section 5 of the Federal Trade Commission Act.

Same for Google. There’s a long-raging series of legal cases and contro­versies over whether Google ‘‘self-preferences’’ and whether this should be permitted. For example, when you search for a restaurant and Google shows you its own reviews ahead of TripAdvisor’s or Yelp’s, is this because Google sincerely believes you will find its reviews more useful than those of its rivals?

This is an almost metaphysical question, which requires that we peer into the psyches of Google’s product managers and engineers to determine the sincerity of their beliefs about the relative merits of different review sites. Sometimes we can do that. In the case of Yelp, there’s a smoking-gun in­ternal email chain in which a Google engineer complains to their boss that they have been ordered to put Yelp’s reviews below Google’s, even though Yelp’s are better. But as hubristic as the tech giants are, we can’t rely on them making a habit of putting their plans to deceive their customers in writing.

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Meanwhile, there’s a much simpler question to resolve: when you search for ‘‘Yelp reviews of Tony’s Pizzeria,’’ the first result should be the Yelp link, not Google’s. That is a bite of the elephant that we can all agree on taking first, I hope!

Everything old is new again.

This principle – that services should make their best efforts to deliver messages between willing senders and receivers – is one of those minimum agreements that we built the internet on, all those years ago. Back then, we called it ‘‘the end-to-end prin­ciple,’’ or ‘‘E2E’’ for short. As self-evidently just as E2E is, businesses are endlessly tempted to break it. Services want to decrypt your messages to make sure you’re not infringing copyright – or maybe they just want to find out what you’re talking about so they can target ads to you, or sell your data to a broker.

Internet service providers hate E2E. They want to be able to practice ‘‘network discrimination’’ whereby they charge businesses extra to have their packets delivered to you after you request them. Under network discrimination, Comcast could slow down videos from YouTube, Prime, and Netflix, while allowing the streams from Peacock (a far less popular video service owned by Comcast’s parent company, NBC Universal) to flow at maximum speed. The opposite of network discrimination is net neutrality, Tim Wu’s useful coinage that is really just another name for the end-to-end principle.

We need net neutrality for services, too. If you subscribe to a newsletter, you should be able to tell Gmail that its messages are not spam, and thereafter they should never, ever, ever be filtered into your spam folder again. The fact that there is no way to do this – no way to permanently and forcefully override Google’s algorithmic ranking system – is genuinely remark­able and shouldn’t be tolerated.


If our online experiences present a curated, filtered version of the world then E2E is a way to escape the cave


We can argue endlessly about whether Google should mark unsolicited donation-begging emails from politicians as spam – but if you ask for emails from a politician, I hope we can all agree that those messages should be delivered.

E2E is a rule that’s easy to follow, and it’s easy to tell if someone is violating it. Figuring out whether Google’s spam filter treats unsolicited mail unfairly is hard. First, we have to agree on what fair is. Then we have to figure out if Google’s filter is deliberately unfair. Then we have to agree on what would make it fair. That’s a process that lawyers euphemistically call ‘‘fact-intensive.’’ I get a headache just thinking about it.

Contrast that with the simpler question: ‘‘Did I tell Gmail that I want to receive email from this sender, and, if so, did Google deliver it to me?’’ That is a much easier question to resolve. What’s more, if the answer is no, the solution is obvious: ‘‘Gmail, you must deliver emails from senders that your users tell you they want to hear from.’’

Likewise Amazon determining whether Amazon showed you a ‘‘good’’ or ‘‘bad’’ product recommendation requires that we all troop over to Plato’s Cave and look over our shoulders at the true forms projecting their shadows on its wall. What a pain in the ass.

By contrast, ‘‘Did Amazon retrieve the product whose name or product number I typed into the search box?’’ is an easy question to answer, and again, if the answer is no, the solution is straight­forward: ‘‘The first result for a search should be the product that most closely matches the thing I searched for.’’

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Note that E2E depends on willing recipients. If a service like TikTok or YouTube or Facebook or Twitter wants to offer a priority-ranked feed, or a feed of suggestions, that’s a great option. If we want those algorithmic feeds to be good, they need to compete with ‘‘the feed of things I asked for.’’ That has to be the baseline; otherwise, companies can enshittify their feeds without worrying about damning comparisons between their recommendations and the stuff that you signed up to see in the first place.

We probably do need rules about how the inter­net should work that go beyond E2E, and there’s no contradiction between making E2E our polestar now, while we figure out that other stuff. Indeed, an end-to-end internet is one where our debates about everything else can take place, rather than going to spam, being buried under ads, or being filtered out of your feed. If our online experiences present a curated, filtered version of the world then E2E is a way to escape the cave.

Cory Doctorow will be speaking at the IAI's upcoming music and ideas festival HowTheLightGetsIn alongside Daniel Dennett, Brian Greene, Fiona Hill, Roger Penrose and many, many more. Explore the full programme and book your tickets here.

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