The 23-year-old company has been very active with its censorship policies recently, including removing apps from the play store, deleting YouTube channels and de-indexing websites.
Twitter recently removed a sitting president from its platform, and Facebook has banned the sharing of news on its platform in Australia, which raises serious questions about the power that the tech giants are now able to wield.
I think it’s worth examining the most socially significant of them and asking, what if google were a country?
There are two metrics commonly used to examine the power that a country or nation-state wields — Soft Power and Hard Power.
Soft Power is hard to define. It’s cultural influence and public opinion. It’s attractiveness.
How many people around the world look favourably at the country?
How much is the state able to influence the behaviour and decision making of people globally, though the promotion of its ideals, politics, philosophy and cultural influence?
Soft power is typically measured in terms of cultural output. For example my country - the UK - typically ranks highly in soft power despite our size because of its significant cultural output.
Its the home of the BBC, the most-watched news organisations globally. Its universities are world-class and educate many of the people that go on to become the elite of their respective nations and its culture is globally relevant for example, every 1 in 10 songs streamed last year was by performed by a British artist. These are the kinds of things that soft power accounts for, and though the USA has a considerable amount of soft power, how would google stand on its own?
Firstly, let's look at the core of their business, the search engine.
The site executes 35 Billion searches per day, or about 40,000 per second.
Google is overwhelmingly the most search used everywhere in the world except China & Russia.
Google can remove or amend search results at will.
They frequently adjust the search algorithm to prioritise different sites and sometimes remove content altogether, which they have done a few times for political-related content such as the widely reported de-indexing of the subreddit r/The_Donald.
Google Search is the gateway to the internet. The internet and online content have become so integrated into our lives, that google search now functions almost like a second brain —we use it to access any information, on any topic, instantly.
It allows us to find arguments, examine recent news, research topics, and find people. It has become critical in the decision-making and opinion-forming process of billions of people all over the world.
Google the company, perched atop this nexus of information flow, controls the what, where and how this information is consumed. For most people, the distinction between google search and google the company isn’t even a thought. Google is simply trusted, it delivers what I’m looking for quickly and easily and that’s all that matters.
Search is not the only thing that Google does. To serve advertising to more people google bought Youtube in 2006.
15 years later, google-owned YouTube has 2.8 Billion logged-in monthly users, with over a billion hours of video watched each day globally.
74% of Adults in the USA and over 55% of adults in the UK say that they use Youtube on a regular basis, with similar proportions of viewership globally.
It’s the second most visited site on the internet (after google search).
To put into perspective what a juggernaut YouTube is, the British Broadcasting Corporation with its global viewership and high levels of viewer trust is regarded as one of the key factors in the UK’s soft-power consideration.
The BBC hit record viewership numbers in 2020 of 438M per week, with aims to hit 500M in viewership per week by 2022.
Youtube not only dwarfs the BBC in terms of viewership but also completely sidesteps the issue of trust, because Youtube doesn’t actually produce any meaningful content of its own. Content viewed through youtube is created by third parties.
Youtube has more viewership in a day than CNN and the BBC combined get in a week.
It’s one of the main ways that people all over the world receive their news, research arguments and form their opinions. Google once again sits on top of this flow of information, able to indirectly influence what we see and believe.
The interesting thing about Google search and Youtube, is that China aside, their reach is genuinely Global. Youtube doesn’t create any content of its own, but by having third parties create the content its influences stretches across cultures and languages without the usual investment that organisations like CNN have to do in order to reach new audiences.
The power of the curator eclipses the power of the creator.
They are able to side-step accountability while still maintaining control of what people actually see and watch through its censorship capacity and ability to promote videos.
This allows Google to act indirectly. It can affect the beliefs and opinions of billions of people worldwide without them realising they have been influenced, which is ultimately the heart of what soft power is.
This is how we typically think of power when countries are discussed. Hard power is very simple — Ships, Guns, Planes and the ability to put people in uniforms to use them.
A good overview of hard ower is to simply look at global military budgets:
This gives us a decent understanding but isn’t completely comprehensive.
For example, France spends $11B less than Saudi Arabia and yet is considerably more powerful, with a professional experienced military, a permanent seat on the UN security council and nuclear capacity.
Hard power is typically calculated not just by the materiel that a country is able to put into the field, but its level of technology and its ability to manage and execute complex large-scale operations with complex supply chains.
With this in mind, exactly how would google compare?
Google doesn’t have any military ships or planes, but it does have a net income of $40B per year which if converted entirely into a military budget would (after a few years) place it around the same level of power as South Korea.
This is, of course, a bit simplistic since countries don’t pay their militaries with profits, they buy equipment and pay soldiers wages with national currencies that are generated through bonds and other mechanisms.
In the scenario that google was a sovereign state with its own currency, it would likely be able to run a deficit the same way countries do and could probably safely run a military budget that placed it alongside the likes of France, Germany and the UK.
Google doesn’t have any military experience but it does have extensive experience at organising and managing global supply chains, developing and deploying technology and enough experience managing hundreds of thousands of full time staff (and thousands more contractors). It isn’t hard to imagine it being able to deploy a formidable force rather quickly.
It’s also worth mentioning that Google has a lot of smart people working for it, and its experience in the design and deployment of hardware and software has thus-far only been applied to consumer and business technology, not military applications.
Silicon Valley companies have pioneered techniques for the rapid development and deployment of technology but haven’t yet (Palantir aside) found military applications. It’s easy to imagine that an organisation built for innovation could be as disruptive to the arms industry as big tech companies have been to hundreds of other industries.
Is this possible?
Honestly? No, not really.
There are a lot of problems with this analysis. The most obvious being that one of the typical requirements for becoming a sovereign state is ownership of sovereign territory, of which google owns none.
Even if Google were to somehow acquire its own territory and declared itself independent (through, for example, seasteading) it would face immense regulatory and social scrutiny.
Despite the infeasibility of this scenario, it’s worth noting that were google to somehow become independent, declare itself sovereign and develop a military it would most likely be in the top ten, or at least top 15 most powerful organisations on earth. Somewhere around the level of Canada or Italy is probably a reasonable estimation.
The point of this analysis was this:
An independent google might potentially be as powerful as Canada.
Would I have been able to say that 15 years ago without being laughed at?