VICTORIA WHITE: We should look the other way when companies tell us how to vote

THE Irish people have beaten off an army of bishops carrying croziers by saying ‘Yes’ in the same-sex marriage referendum. For the first time, they have made up their own minds.

So says the international media, anyway, including the Financial Times and the New York Times, so it must be true. Not that I noticed a whack of a crozier in my polling station, but that was probably because I voted in a Muslim school.

I guess the priest at our local church (who is in his 70s, but can’t retire because there is no one to replace him) is feeling rattled. And as for the last Jesuit teacher in Ireland, who is in my local school? I bet he is gobsmacked that his all-powerful Church did not deliver a ‘No’ result.

It’s over, boys. We don’t let anyone tell us what to do anymore. Unless they are telling us what we want to hear, of course. So we have no problem with Google assailing unsuspecting googlers, the day before the referendum, with a message on their screens, “Google supports marriage equality #Proud to Love”.

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When the message appeared on my screen, in the middle of my working day, complete with its Irish translation, “Seasann Google leis an ionannas p/osta #Br/odAnGhr/a”, I felt like the only person in the country who resented the interference. “It’s my Constitution! It’s my decision!”, I shouted, but my black Labrador, Jess, just rolled over and went back to sleep. I tweeted my indignation, but my followers took Jess’s lead on the issue.

I thought I had imagined it all when I saw a letter by David McRedmond, chief executive of TV3, in a national newspaper.The letter said: “Google could equally have had a message, subject to its unregulated whims, that said Google believes marriage is between a man and a woman. Would that be acceptable?” It wouldn’t, of course. There would have been a terrible hoo-haa.

But there was barely a complaint, because Google was playing to the position of most Irish googlers and, as a publicly quoted company, it would be very foolish to have done otherwise. McRedmond made the valid point that had the broadcast moratorium not been in place, TV and radio could have registered complaints about “interference in the referendum”. Because of the moratorium, TV3 could not even highlight the story on air.

McRedmond argues that the broadcast moratorium should be abolished outside the hours of voting. That would give Google competition when it sends out a political message.

McRedmond says the broadcast moratorium — which includes UK broadcasters who are widely available in Ireland, yet not subject to our national rules — is anachronistic in the age of global communications.

Others, including some within the tech industry, argue that platforms such as Google should be subject to national regulation, to stop them pushing a political agenda in the run-up to a national vote.

Google’s declaration of its support for a ‘Yes’ vote, as well as Twitter’s, has been the subject of debate behind the closed doors of tech companies.

READ MORE: How Google works hard to keep staff happy

Some employees have huge issues with their companies making political statements. One senior techie explained the background to the declarations of support for gay marriage as competition with Apple, whose CEO, Tim Cooke, recently came out as gay and slammed “religious freedom” laws in Indiana and Arkansas that open the door to discrimation. One hundred similar bills are pending in 12 US states.

Salesforce has threatened to limit its dealings with states that have such regressive laws, but some senior techies are privately unconvinced by the depth of the big tech companies’ social commitment, because they are not threatening to pull out of other countries that have discriminatory laws against gays or against women.

Google is under investigation by the EU for allegedly rigging searches to lead users to its own selling platforms. In the US, the company has lobbied on a big scale to fight net regulation measures that might limit it, stating: “Google’s political spending decisions are based exclusively on what’s best for Google and an open internet.”

Whether that’s right or wrong, it is understandable from a business point of view. What’s more open to question is why Google should be advocating a ‘Yes’ to same-sex marriage in Ireland.

Tech expert, Karlin Lillingon, explains the move as a commitment to “diversity” in the workplace, and Cooke has said, again and again, that discrimination is not good for business.

The stance is also a marketing tool, appealing both to the companies’ own workforce and to their consumers. Gay rights are not threatening to corporate culture. Gay people are less likely to have their own families than straights, and that gay reality must also appeal to creative corporations. In her trailing-blazing book, Willing Slaves: How the Overwork Culture is Ruling our Lives, Madeleine Bunting described a Microsoft office in which employees’ work became their lives, complete with yoga, grocery delivery and a well-being centre. The average age of employees was 34. When Bunting asked what happened when the employees had children, she was told, “If you choose to have a family or play golf, you have to be honest about what kind of job you can do.”

Personally, I found the declarations of support by Google and by Twitter, for same-sex marriage, demeaning. I’m not going to tailor my vote on my Constitution to please any American multinational. But that is a different level of penetration into a national debate than when Google, whose excellent product accounts for 95% of internet searches in Ireland, tell me how to vote when I use the search engine. Particularly as most of us use Google as if it were neutral, as if it were a publicly-owned utility.

There is quite simply no comparison between the power of a company like Google and the power of the Catholic Church in Ireland, today.

But we don’t seem to care how we are manipulated, as long as we agree with the message.

What happens next, of course, is that we stop noticing the manipulation and stop having minds of our own.

If we have learned anything from our mid-20th century history, it’s that you don’t give your mind over to an organisation, even if it’s telling you to love your neighbour.

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