event & panel discussion: google, governance, & possible interventions

On the 12th of April we’ll host a big event at the newly renovated Austrian Academy of Sciences. I’ll first present the results of my long-standing habilitation project “Algorithmic Imaginaries” (funded by the Austrian Science Fund; Elise Richter Program), followed by a panel discussion with leading search engine scholars from all over Europe. Together with Elizabeth Van Couvering, Rosie Graham, and Bernhard Rieder we’ll discuss Google, surveillance capitalism, and discrimination; moderated by Ov Cristian Norocel and Richard Rogers. All infos and registration on-site can be found here; there’ll be a stream too!

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Before the public event we’ll be holding a writing workshop at the Institute of Technology Assessment to discuss the manuscripts for our special issue “From Google Critique to Intervention” to be published by Big Data & Society. I’m already looking forward to this get-together!!aaw

If you’d like to get a flavour of my project “Algorithmic Imaginaries” you might watch this video of the lecture I gave in Feburary as part of the ÖAW’s gender & diversity lecture series (in German). This lecture sparked quite some media attention including a cover in Der Standard’s “Forschung Spezial” :)

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conference travels from the past..

In Austria, we’re diving through the “4th Corona wave” right now including a hard lockdown. Yet again, I’m sitting in my home (office) with the kids on my lap in case more than two school kids get infected in the same class. The responsibility has been fully shifted onto teachers, parents, and their kids by now. Politics has given up on the Covid-management of schools, as it seems. In the middle of this chaos, I’m enthusiastically thinking back to my (real!) trip to Lund two months ago. Olof Sundin and Alison Gerber invited me to give a keynote lecture at the interdisciplinary symposium In Search of Search (and its Engines). This workshop was a kind of gathering of pioneering search engine scholars that accompany me since my PhD (more than 15 years now). I finally met Elizabeth van Couvering, for example, whose work on the commercialization of Google and the creation of its business model based on the “traffic commodity” had a great impact on my PhD research. Also, Richard Rogers, Dirk Lewandowski, Jutta Haider, and other great scholars were there and it was FUN! (and not only because of the real food & drinks!) The best part is that we keep the lively debates about search engines, search engine research, and its academic & sociopolitical impact alive. We’re currently working on a special issue for Big Data & Society called The State of Google Critique and Intervention co-edited by Ov Cristian Norocel, Richard Rogers, and myself. We’re planning a workshop and a public event in Vienna (12 April 2022), which I love to organize in the middle of this 4th wave as a possibility to work towards a light at the end of the tunnel.. 😉 So stay tuned!

blogMoreover, almost as an exception to the rule, I attended a great 4S online session this year: Wiring digital justice: Embedding rights in Internet governance by infrastructure organized by Stefania Milan, Niels ten Oever, and Francesca Musiani. Despite the shitty online platform the conference was running on, the session organizers managed to trigger fruitful discussions by providing thoughtful comments after each of the presentations. My paper was titled “Encoding Freedom: Analysis of open search technology between German hacker ethics and Asian start-up culture” and triggered debates about Chinese tech development and the “metrics of freedom” that I’m still thinking about – now that I finally have time to analyze my rich empirical materials on open source communities and other alternative search projects.

media coverage

prfLast year, my work has been covered by various media outlets and events. First, the Austrian Academy of Sciences (ÖAW) made a portrait/ interview with me on the way visions and values shape search engines as part of their series “Forschen für Europa”. This piece included a fancy foto shooting, as you can see here. Second, I was invited to take part in the panel discussion of the ORF Public Value event “Occupy Internet. Der gute Algorithmus” (together with Tom Lohninger from epicenter.works, Matthias Kettemann from the Hans-Bredow-Institut and Franz Manola from the ORF Plattformmanagement). The live discussion took place at the “Radiokulturhaus” and was aired in ORF 3 thereafter. Here you can find the abstract, the press release and the video in case you want to watch the whole discussion. Finally, I was invited as a studio guest to the radio broadcast “Punkt 1” at Ö1 “Das eingefärbte Fenster zur Welt“, where I spoke about alternative search engines and people could phone in and ask questions per email. Talk radio it is! 😉 – all in German.

50 internet myths

Today, the Internet Governance Forum started in Berlin. As part of this huge event the edited volume Busted! The Truth About the 50 Most Common Internet Myths will be launched. This wonderful volume – edited by Matthias Kettemann & Stephan Dreyer – is a compilation of common Internet myths and their deconstructions. Here is the link to the whole book: https://internetmythen.de (English and German; including summaries in all five UN languages). Enjoy!!myth

I’ve contributed Myth #19: Search engines provide objective results:

Myth: Search engines deliver objective search results. This is the founding myth of the leading search engine in the Western World: Google. 20 years later this founding myth still exists in Google’s company philosophy. More importantly, however, it resonates in people’s minds. Without knowing how the search engine actually works, many users say that the best websites can be found on top.

Busted: In 1998, the founding year of Google, Sergey Brin and Larry Page described their search engine’s central aim as follows: „The primary goal is to provide high quality search results over a rapidly growing World Wide Web.“ (Brin and Page 1998: 115). Accordingly, the notions “quality” and “search quality” feature over 30 times in their research paper. The authors depict the PageRank algorithm – originally using the number and quality of hyperlinks a website gets, anchor text and proximity to determine the quality of a website and rank it accordingly – as their main competitive advantage. They describe the algorithm as “objective measure” corresponding well to “people’s subjective idea of importance” (Brin and Page 1998: 109). Interestingly, this seems to be the case indeed. Having asked people why they use Google to find online health information in the context of my PhD project, most people answered with saying that Google delivered the best search results, implicitly shaping the search engine as a tool for quality assurance. Without knowing – or even thinking about – how the search engine actually works, Google’s founding myth was reproduced in people’s stories.

But it is a myth. Search engines are no neutral, objective technologies, but rather tightly intertwined with societal norms, values and ideologies; the capitalist ideology most importantly. Over the past decades, Google’s “techno-fundamentalist” ideology of neutral ranking was aligned with and overshadowed by non-objective considerations. New media scholars started to deconstruct the myth of objectivity soon after the search engine’s successful market entry. At first, they challenged the PageRank algorithm by arguing that it would threaten the democratic ideal of the web (#28) by systematically preferring big, well-connected, often commercial websites at the expense of smaller ones. Later they switched over to questioning search engines’ business models based on user-targeted advertising and the commercialization of search engine results and privacy issues these trigger. A major criticism in this body of work concerns the ‘consumer profiling’ conducted by Google – and others like Bing – that enable search engines to adjust advertisements to users’ individual interests. (#21; #22)

Due to the growing amount of user data these companies acquired, the search algorithm and the “organic” search results changed too. Besides hyperlinks other factors were thrown into the measuring of a website’s quality including user profiles and click behaviour most particularly, but also the structure of a website, timeliness, and the amount of keywords and content. Accordingly, new media researchers, but increasingly also journalists, criticized the intensified personalization of search engine results, search engine biases and discrimination. This illustrates that search algorithms are tightly intertwined with the business models their companies rely on. The capitalist ideology is embedded in search engines and “acts through algorithmic logics and computational systems“ (Mager 2014: 32).

Truth: It is important to keep in mind that search engines and their algorithms are no neutral technologies, but rather incorporate societal values and ideologies; the capitalist ideology most importantly. Only then may we come up with forward-looking governance models respecting local regulations and resonating with human rights (especially in Europe, where data protection is enshrined as a fundamental right).

 


Source: Sergey Brin and Lawrence Page, The anatomy of a large-scale hypertextual Web search engine, Computer Networks and ISDN Systems 30: 107- 117 (1998); Astrid Mager, Defining Algorithmic Ideology: Using Ideology Critique to Scrutinize Corporate Search Engines, tripleC 12(1): 28-39 (2014).

lecture @ technical university of vienna

In January I was kindly invited to give a lecture on my habilitation project “Algorithmic Imaginaries“. This talk was part of the lecture series “Aspects of the Digital Transformation” at the The Centre for Informatics and Society (CIS) of the Faculty of Informatics. Thanks a lot to Florian Cech and Hilda Tellioglu for the warm welcome including fine wine and bread! Thanks also to the audience who triggered really interesting discussions! You can find the video on the C!S website if you want to watch it (in English):

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Suchmaschinen in Europa – europäische Suchmaschinen?

I was invited to write a blog post about my research for the Young Academy blog at the daily newspaper “Der Standard“. Here’s the teaser:

Suchmaschinen in Europa – europäische Suchmaschinen?
Suchmaschinen sind gesellschaftspolitischen Entwicklungen unterworfen. Doch welche Rolle spielt Europa dabei?

Enjoy reading the the full text here (in German)!

If you want to learn more about all the great members of the Young Academy, check out the summer series portraits of new YA members. Mine is titled “Kleine Davids gegen Google Goliath“. It’s a fine compilation of interdisciplinary research my young colleagues are doing.

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internet governance as joint effort

Out now: my article “Internet governance as joint effort: (Re)ordering search engines at the intersection of global and local cultures” has just been published by New Media & Society. Or at least in its online first version! I’m very happy about it!! & welcome every feedback or commentary. Here’s the preprint version, if you don’t have access to the journal (or you just send me an email for the original version). yipiiiiehhhh :)

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(un)making europe

greek-1289076_1920Tomorrow I’ll be going to the conference by the European Sociological Association in Athens. The conference theme is (Un)Making Europe. Capitalism, Solidarities, Subjectivities. I’ll be giving a talk on the co-production of search technology and a European identity in the session “information technologies & society” organized by Harald Rohracher. It’s related to my article “search engine imaginary” that got published in Social Studies of Science just recently. It’s pretty unusual for me to give a talk about finished work, but I thought I had to submit something since this research corresponds to the overall conference topic so well. 😉

Here’s the conference abstract and the link to the full paper:

(Un)Making Europe in the Context of Search Engine Policy

This article discusses the co-production of search technology and a European identity in the context of the EU data protection reform. The negotiations of the EU data protection legislation ran from 2012 until 2015 and resulted in a unified data protection legislation directly binding for all European member states. I employ a discourse analysis to examine EU policy documents and Austrian media materials related to the reform process. Using the concept ‘sociotechnical imaginary’, I show how a European imaginary of search engines is forming in the EU policy domain, how a European identity is constructed in the envisioned politics of control, and how national specificities contribute to the making and unmaking of a European identity. I discuss the roles that national technopolitical identities play in shaping both search technology and Europe, taking as an example Austria, a small country with a long history in data protection and a tradition of restrained technology politics.

 

“netzpolitischer abend”

meme-evil-toddler-netzpat14Genau vier Wochen nach dem letzten Netzpolitischen Abend AT gibt es am ersten Donnerstag im Monat, konkret dem 2. März, wieder drei spannende Vorträge zu netzpolitischen Themen – wie üblich ab 19:30 Uhr im Wiener Metalab in der Rathausstr. 6:

 

  • Astrid Mager (Institut für Technikfolgenabschätzung, @astridmager): Suchmaschinen in Europa. Europäische Suchmaschinen?
  • Maximilian Schubert (@ISPA_at): „Netzsperren in Österreich“
  • Wolfie Christl (@WolfieChristl): Big-Data-Business, Profiling & Privacy

C6fm4W3WYAALsrrUnd hier der Link zum Nachsehen und Nachhören. Danke an alle, va Herbert Gnauer (von Idealism Prevails) für’s streamen & schneiden, war sehr fein!!