ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:
Big tech companies influence more of our lives than ever before, and there are growing concerns that they are using that power to advance their own corporate interests. European regulators have fined Google for favoring its own services and products in search results, and a Google-funded think tank, New America, appears to have fired some of its scholars after one of them praised this fine.
We're going to speak now with a journalist who had her own experience in this vein several years ago. Kashmir Hill is writing about it now because it seems to show the way a tech giant like Google appears to game the system. Welcome.
KASHMIR HILL: Hi, Ari.
SHAPIRO: Briefly describe what this experience was that you had several years ago.
HILL: So this happened six years ago in 2011. I was a reporter at Forbes at the time. I got pulled into a meeting with Google salespeople where they were talking about Google Plus, which was then a new social network. And they told Forbes that they needed to put the plus-one buttons on Forbes' pages, or it would hurt them in search results because plus-one buttons were going to be a signal in search.
SHAPIRO: So basically if Forbes did not promote the Google Plus social network, Forbes articles would not appear as prominently in search results.
HILL: They wouldn't phrase it that way. They would say if you didn't have the plus-one buttons, you know, on your articles, you would be at a disadvantage in search rankings.
SHAPIRO: And so you published this, and what happened?
HILL: Well, first I went to Google's public relations team, and they confirmed that it was going to be a signal in search. And then I published an article about it. And Google flipped out after the article was published and went to Forbes and said that meeting was a business meeting; it was covered by a non-disclosure agreement, and you need to take this article down right away.
SHAPIRO: This sounds sort of like a source arguing that something was off the record when it was your understanding that it was on the record, which is not unusual. But what seems more unusual is what happened to the article after you did decide to take it down.
HILL: Right. So Google said this was a problem for the business relationship between Forbes and Google and talked to many of my higher ups. And you know, they put a lot of pressure on me to unpublish the article. So I did, and it completely disappeared. It even disappeared from search results very soon after it was unpublished, which was unusual at the time from what I've seen with articles that we had unpublished in the past.
SHAPIRO: You asked Google whether they had anything to do with this. What did they tell you?
HILL: So Google still feels that that article was inappropriate given that it was based on this confidential business meeting. And they said they had nothing to do with the removal from search results.
SHAPIRO: Do you believe them?
HILL: (Laughter) What's hard about the story is this is something that happened six years ago. But it is - it's something that's always troubled me because of how quickly the article completely disappeared. The thing is - about tech companies is - we don't know. We don't get to see inside their companies, their algorithms. So I don't know what happened. I only know it from what I saw, though it was scraped by another site, so it's still available.
SHAPIRO: Google presents itself as a storehouse of knowledge. And I guess the question that your story raises is, how much is Google deciding what we should and should not know?
HILL: (Laughter) I mean Google has a lot of power over access to information. And you know, what was at issue in my story and at issue with the New America Foundation incident is that a lot of people are saying Google is using its dominance in one industry in order to enter another industry. So the story I wrote was about how they were using their search power to push their social network. And part of the problem with New America is that there was this soft pressure on New America Foundation to silence critics of Google's monopoly power. And so what my story and what New America's story have in common was that, you know, it's not always an ultimatum that Google puts forth. But just because it's so powerful, just a little nudge has a lot of weight behind it.
SHAPIRO: That's journalist Kashmir Hill, who now writes for Gizmodo. Thanks for your time.
HILL: Thanks, Ari. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.