I’m writing this blog in a Google Doc, in my Google Chrome browser, relying upon information that I found via Google Search. Most of this information also pertains to Google. Here are two things: this year alone, Google spent over $21 million on lobbying, and yesterday, at the World Economic Forum in Davos, the company announced a $3.1 million dollar donation to the Wikimedia Foundation, the non-profit behind Wikipedia. These don’t sound like huge amounts of money for a corporation as massive as Google, but it’s business decisions like these – a donation here, a law passed there — that have allowed tech companies to slowly lay the foundation of our entire internet experience, and they deserve the same scrutiny as data collection policies and privacy scandals.
Google’s donation is apportioned in two parts: $2 million to Wikimedia’s endowment, and $1.1 million to fund Wikipedia content creation in underrepresented languages. In the words of Google PR, the donation will “provide editors with resources and insights to drive the creation of new Wikipedia articles across 10 languages in India, Indonesia, Mexico, Nigeria and the Middle East and North Africa region.”
This is what people caught in the gravitational pull of Silicon Valley ideology call a “win-win.” Wikipedia is an immeasurably useful resource, and increasing global access to its corpus of knowledge is wonderful. But when you consider what Google (and other tech companies, like Apple and Amazon, who are also donors) gets out of the donation, it reads less like an act of charity and more like an investment. Although Wikipedia is creative commons content — free for anyone to use and disseminate — most people arrive at Wikipedia through Google, so expanding Wikipedia’s reach means bolstering Google’s. And many Google products and services rely on content from Wikipedia anyway: as Louise Matsakis points out at Wired, Google has used Wikipedia articles to train algorithms and populate its so-called “knowledge graphs,” and Apple and Amazon use Wikipedia content to power their voice assistants.
It may seem strange for a company to donate to build up a resource that is also used by its competitors, but when it comes to gobbling up larger swaths of our lives, both online and IRL, all of the “Big Five” tech companies (Amazon, Google, Facebook, Microsoft, and Apple) are on the same side. Last year, Team Tech inserted itself further into public policy in the wake of various scandals and critiques from antitrust activists. Amazon and Facebook spent around $14 million and $13 million on lobbying, respectively, with Microsoft at $9.5 million and Apple at $6.6 million bringing the grand total to $64.3 million spent by the Big Five, per Yahoo Finance.
All of this money directed at altering (or stalling) government policy and supporting the world’s largest online encyclopedia means that it doesn’t matter how much you divorce yourself from the Big Five’s services and products: their reach extends into the darkest cracks of the internet and spills out into physical space. Gizmodo reporter Kashmir Hill experienced this firsthand during a weeklong attempt to cut Amazon out of her life. You can (and should) read the piece in its entirety, but here’s the gist: short of going full Walden, it’s impossible to life an Amazon-free life, due to the fact that Amazon is far more than its consumer-facing services; its enterprise services undergird much of the internet as we know it.
The day after Google announced its donation at Davos, Sheryl Sandberg was reportedly introduced at a speaking event as the person who figured out how to monetize people’s data. According to BuzzFeed News tech reporter Ryan Mac, the audience laughed.