Did you know that an estimated 90% of internet search queries are performed by Google?
That is an astonishing statistic when you think about one company’s market dominance and ability to shape public opinion through search results. It’s also highly problematic if you follow Google’s pattern of anti-conservative bias and manipulation of its search algorithm.
Todd Ricketts, co-owner of Major League Baseball’s Chicago Cubs, is challenging Google’s dominance by launching Freespoke, a search engine that promises unbiased and uncensored information for its users.
Ricketts joins this episode of “The Daily Signal Podcast.” Listen or read a transcript of the interview below.
Rob Bluey: Before we hear more about the features of Freespoke, I’d like to start by hearing what inspired you to create a competitor to Google. Certainly, no easy competitor in the marketplace.
Todd Ricketts: I think that just in general I have a skeptical brain, and in the course of my career just always had this healthy skepticism of what anybody was doing or how they were presenting themselves versus what the reality was. And as I looked at Google results, I always felt like I was getting results that I didn’t expect, and I felt like they were a little bit left-leaning, that they were not showing everything that I was looking for, really, and trying to guide me down a path that was not the path I was looking for.
The best example that I have: I was showing this idea to a prospective investor in Freespoke and I said, “One of the crazy things that I’ve found is that sometimes when you type ‘NRA’ in Google, the NRA itself is the sixth thing that comes up.”
And so we did that, and luckily for me, in that particular meeting, the NRA came down, it was really subdued, below the fold in newspaper talk, and really, it just highlighted the fact that Google is showing you things that are curated and manipulated in a way, specifically, from a news point of view, to lead you down a path or to lead your thinking in a particular way. And I just don’t really think that’s what search is all about.
I’ve always felt like search should be about presenting all the information and letting you make up your mind, and if I can tie that into our family business of Ameritrade that we sold to Schwab a couple of years ago—but really when Ameritrade came into business in 1975, it was deregulation of brokerage commissions.
And the idea was that before 1975, you had to pay high commissions to an expensive stock broker to have access to the stock market. And with the deregulation of commissions, that allowed people to trade stocks without the advice and without the high cost. And really what it did is it allowed people to take control of their own financial future.
So I think what we’re trying to do is kind of a similar vein. I want to give people back information. I want people to be able to read all the news and make up their own minds about what’s going on in the world.
Bluey: Thank you for that. And in addition to being a co-owner of the Chicago Cubs, you are currently serving as a member of the board of directors for Charles Schwab and previously were a member of the board at TD Ameritrade, a company that your father founded, as you said, in 1975. So you’ve obviously seen success in the business world.
And following up on that last answer, why do you think that there’s so much potential for Freespoke right now? And as you look at the potential audience and the users who would benefit from it, why are you bullish about its future?
Ricketts: The American way is competition. Obviously, when it comes to baseball and it comes to business, I’m a competitor. You said it yourself, Google has 90% of the search queries on the internet. That’s too much for any one market player. There aren’t very many industries where you have one player that has such dominance.
And being around D.C. a little bit and hearing politicians speak, they talk about regulating these industries, but in my mind, I don’t want regulation. I just want competition. Give me a level playing field and let me go out there and put out a product that’s an alternative to Google and to the other search engines that are out there.
And the fact that there are a couple other search engines popping up right now, too, just highlights the fact that there’s a need out there in the market for an alternative to search.
Bluey: You previously served as the CEO of Ending Spending, which focused on fiscal issues, and were national finance chairman for the Republican National Committee. So as somebody who’s worked in both conservative politics and Republican politics, I’m sure you’ve seen the anti-conservative bias firsthand. What are some of the notable things that Big Tech has done that really sparked your interest to focus on an alternative to Google?
Ricketts: There’s a few good topics. The one that jumps out at me that is most recent is how Google was sending RNC emails into people’s spam folder.
Now, I think it’s fairly common that you get a bit of spam into your spam folder, but in 2020, Google, if you had a Gmail account, 80% of emails sent from the Republican National Committee to Gmail accounts were put into spam, compared to less than 10% of emails from the Democrat National Committee.
That’s a big deal, first of all, because these email campaigns are expensive and lots of people have Gmail. But it’s just an insight into how Google thinks about conservative views and conservative values.
You don’t have to look too far, that during COVID how there was so much suppressed information on people who just questioned what the [Centers for Disease Control and Prevention] was saying and questioned, were lockdowns and masks and all these things we did, were they the right thing? And so if you said that, you were immediately taken off of YouTube or taken down from a Google search.
So there’s lots of examples of where Big Tech is trying to guide the thinking of the American people, which I just don’t think is right, and I don’t think it’s healthy. I think it’s dangerous.
Bluey: I want to come back to that in just a moment. By the way, that study that you referenced came from the Department of Computer Science at North Carolina State University, so was not a partisan study in any means.
And as somebody who has worked for a number of years to overcome the algorithmic bias of the social media companies, and we made a pivot several years ago at The Daily Signal to invest in emails, so we certainly appreciate what you’re talking about there, because it is the primary means in which Daily Signal users and our audience receives its information. So we know that when it is filtered into different inboxes or spam, it can have a big impact on the number of people who are seeing our content.
Ricketts: Yeah, exactly.
Bluey: I want to ask you now about some of the features and characteristics that users can expect from Freespoke. You’ve talked about the principles behind the search engine. When they go to use the search engine themselves, what are some of the things that they’ll find there?
Ricketts: Specifically on news and current events, we identify the sources as either being left or right or middle of the road. And really, it’s not a panacea. It doesn’t solve everything. But what it does is it gives you some quick context of where the person who wrote that story is coming from, and so you can adjust in your own mind, “Do I have to add a green assault to what I’m reading, because I know this person is coming at it from either a left or a right bias?”
And so, really, we’re just trying to help people sort through. Again, it comes back to putting information in front of people and helping them come to their own conclusions, and it’s really something that just seems to be outside of what the Big Tech world is thinking right now, where they want to guide your thinking.
The other part of it is that we’re trying to search all sorts of content. Our crawler is looking for new content all the time, and we’re expanding that crawl all the time, trying to find new sources of relevant information and highlighting those things. And really, if you go look for news on Google, you’ll find The New York Times pays for that first slot all the time. And so we avoid having that by not having people pay for that slot, and we’re trying to put content up as it is relevant, not as it’s paid for.
Bluey: Again, I feel like we have a lot of synergy here, as somebody who believes that it’s important to label news and commentary, and we do that on The Daily Signal. I like the fact that you are taking that step and providing users with that additional information.
I imagine, though, so many people that work at left-leaning news outlets tried to hide under the banner of mainstream media. What might they say if they object to the classification that you’ve given them? Have you been in a situation where a news outlet has complained? And if they do complain, what’s your response going to be?
Ricketts: We have had a couple outlets say that they want to be labeled as middle, so it is interesting you ask that. We’re going to continue to do it our way. We look at several sources. There’s Ad Fontes—an organization that identifies content as left, right, center sort of thinking—and we look at a few others, and we look at it ourselves, too, and identifying language that is either left or right. But we’re going to continue to label things to the best of our ability and as clearly as possible.
Bluey: Big Tech platforms are promising to combat misinformation almost on a daily basis, be it for climate change or COVID. You’ve talked about this now a couple of times. Why is it important to provide people with the facts and let them think for themselves?
Ricketts: It goes back to that old saying: One man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter. And so when you get into this world of what you consider misinformation, it’s a little scary to think that there’s some 25-year-old kid in Silicon Valley that gets to decide that.
I think that people are smart enough to know for themselves what’s good information and what’s bad information, and I don’t think we need to have this thought police that go around telling you that you have to have these thoughts on climate change. What is the consensus on climate change? And I often say, “I’m not a denier, but I like to have an honest conversation.”
And so any sort of platform that says they’re going to suppress information of people that question the consensus on climate change, that is frightening to me. I think that, at one time, Galileo said the Earth was round and was put in jail because he wasn’t part of the accepted thinking of the Flat Earth Society at the time.
We don’t ever want to be put in one of those positions where we have a society where people who question the morays of the day get canceled. It’s the most horrifying thing.
We’re seeing it everywhere, too, especially in Hollywood. You see people get canceled and labeled as whatever for comments that are just honest comments. And one of the things we want to do is make sure that we don’t cancel people and let people have that platform to speak.
Bluey: It’s so true. And I think one of the other aspects that you’ve seen social media companies employ, and even some legacy media outlets, is the use of fact-checkers. And those fact-checkers obviously come in with an agenda. And those social media companies will work in tandem with them, and in many cases, try to suppress content that comes from outlets like ours at The Daily Signal or others. So there are a number of challenges and ways that they’re trying to combat “misinformation,” in their words, that ultimately just try to advance a certain agenda that they’re trying to push.
Ricketts: No, that’s 100%. And that exactly highlights the need for platforms like Freespoke, and there’s going to be others that we need. I don’t know if we’re going to expand beyond search in the future, but if you look at places like Twitter or like Instagram and these other platforms, there’s a real problem out there. As Americans, we need to have all the information and not just one view.
Bluey: I’m curious on that point, because there has been so much focus in the conservative space, whether it be Truth Social or whether it be other platforms that have emerged recently. What inspired you to focus on search as opposed to some of the other aspects of Big Tech, like a social media platform? Was there a particular thing that you felt that there was maybe an opportunity here that didn’t exist elsewhere?
Ricketts: I guess there was kind of two parts to it. The first thing, which was completely wrong in my thinking, I’m like, “Well, how hard can it be to build a search engine?” I say that a little tongue in cheek, because it’s incredibly difficult to build any sort of crawling technology that tags things in a way that makes sense. So that was really hard.
But really, the real reason that I thought search was a great place to start is that, going back to Google has such a massive market share that you don’t have to get 50% of the market to have a viable business. If you think that Google has a billion regular users, and you just think to yourself, “Well, if I get 10 million, if I could just get 1% of that market, I have a viable business, or even a 10th of a percent.” So it’s just such a massive market. I felt like that’s where the opportunity presented itself to have a business that’s viable, even if you’re not a market leader.
Bluey: That is certainly true, and you’ve already seen, I think, in the success that you’ve had in building a community, you call them Freefolk. Tell us about who the Freefolk are and what they’ve been doing to perfect the platform and provide that feedback that has been beneficial in terms of creating a new business.
Ricketts: The Freefolk is just kind of a fun name that we use for the people who use our search engine. But really, Freespoke is for everybody.
I’m a Republican, but I don’t come to this business thinking, like, “Oh, this is a search engine for Republicans.” This should be everyone who wants to find the truth or educate themselves. It just so happens that those people today tend to be more conservative and more Republican. A lot of people on the left seem to be OK with where the way Google results and other platforms present information.
We’re intended for everybody, and so everybody should be a Freefolk. And I think that if you’re an intellectual person in this country, you should be thinking, “This is a product that I need.”
Bluey: One of the other things that we haven’t talked about yet, but I think is another important feature, is the fact that you do not track or sell your users’ information. Why was it important for you to build that into the search engine?
Ricketts: It’s been talked about, but we haven’t seen it in the mass market, but I think as time goes on, people are going to become more and more concerned about their privacy of their personal information that’s out there on the internet.
And even Eric Schmidt from Google, you called it the creepy line. Google tries to walk right up to the creepy line without being creepy, but I think the fact that he even ever said that is creepy.
And so really protecting your privacy on the internet is going to be really important, I think, more and more so as we go forward, as more and more of your information is out there. And people just need to be able to make decisions as to what the world can see about them.
When you’re on the internet, I think people should always have this in the back of their head, is that if you are not paying for something, you are the product. Your information is being sold to advertisers by that website or that search engine. And so if you’re not paying for it, you’re the product. And so if people can have that mindset when they get on the internet, I think it would go a long ways in protecting their own privacy.
Bluey: I think, particularly as this younger generation emerges and so much of their life, pretty much their entire life, is now online from the time that they were born, I agree with you. That is going to be a bigger issue and it’s a concern that I think all of us have as we see how these companies can sometimes manipulate data and know things about us that we never expected would end up where they are.
Todd, I want to shift for just a moment. Talk about some of your own personal experiences and what led you to this point. You’ve had a tremendously successful life, and as we talked about earlier with Ameritrade and some of the values that your father and your family brought to that company—your brother, obviously, being the governor of Nebraska—why are you a conservative? How did you get to that point in your life? And share with our listeners a little bit more about your own personal story.
Ricketts: I grew up in Nebraska. It was two great parents that taught us different things. My mom loved sports and always taught us to be competitors. I always say that she taught us to be competitors on the field and kind and compassionate off the field.
And my dad was really just about risk-taking and entrepreneurship. He always felt like you really should always be making mistakes and always failing at something. And if you’re not, you’re not trying enough new things.
And so he started several businesses before Ameritrade became successful, and continues to do that. He’s a little bit of a serial entrepreneur. And I think that sort of bug, or that gene, is in our family. My siblings and I, we’re always trying to push the envelope and test the common thinking and see where there’s markets that have opportunities.
Bluey: And you’ve obviously had great success with your Major League Baseball team, the Chicago Cubs. As a lifelong baseball fan myself, albeit for the Pittsburgh Pirates, your division rival, I want to spend just a moment here, in closing, to have you tell the story about how you help transform the Cubs, obviously a franchise that had struggled, that hadn’t been to the World Series, and then that moment when you won the World Series championship.
What was it like? You were there. You experienced it firsthand yourself. But it took five years, as I understand it, to really get to that point where you were able to transform an organization that had struggled into a World Series champion.
Ricketts: There’s a couple facets to it that are pretty interesting. When we bought the team, we had a pretty clear view of what Tribune ownership had been of the Cubs. And so if you keep in mind that they were owned by the Chicago Tribune, which also owned WGN, which was the TV network that they were on, they came at the asset of the Chicago Cubs, looking at it like, “This is great TV content.”
So they were able to broadcast Cubs games and make a lot of money at their television station, and they weren’t so concerned about how the team did on the field as long as they had all that content to put on TV. I think that is the No. 1 reason why the team suffered so much in the ’80s, ’90s, and early 2000s.
And so we looked at that and we said, “Look, this is a team that should be winning all the time. This is a team that has great fans in a big city with a great ballpark. And if you just ran it like a business that was trying to win, you would most certainly win.”
And it took us six years to win the World Series, but I’d say it took us about a year to put our strategic plan in place, which we called the five-year plan. So it took us five years from the time we were able to get our strategy in place.
Really, it was just taking the whole business down to the studs, if you think about it, and renovating a house. We revamped ticketing. We revamped our whole advertising campaign. We revamped everything in baseball. We built new facilities down in the Dominican Republic. We built a new spring training facility in Arizona. We invested heavily in Wrigley Field itself to bring it up to the 20th century as far as a place that people could come and watch a game the way people do today and instead of a 100-year-old building.
And I think all those things, that seriousness on every level and thoughtfulness at every level, went through the entire organization to a point where people held themselves to a higher standard, and still do hold themselves to a higher standard, in whatever job they have at the Cubs.
With that culminating in a 2016 World Series win, it was such a great feeling to be able to give that gift back to the city of Chicago, having lived in Chicago for 30 years and being a big fan myself, to give that gift to all these fans that had been waiting so long to have that celebration and that sort of success, it was really great.
Bluey: We hope as conservatives that you have that same success with Freespoke because it’s so difficult, as we know, the competitive environment in Major League Baseball, and the challenge that you’re up against here with Google is a massive one, but it is so needed to have an alternative.
And I think that there are many Daily Signal listeners, people who tune into this podcast or read our site, who are looking for something other than the dominant player in that market.
Before we wrap here, how can people get more information about Freespoke? I understand, obviously, it’s on the web, but you have an app as well.
Ricketts: One hundred percent. Yeah. We have Freespoke.com, is our online search engine. And then you can go to either the Droid or the Apple Store and download the Freespoke app, so you can use it on your mobile device and just have it there at the ready all the time. And I’ve been showing people how you can move Safari out of your quick access bar down at the bottom of your phone and put Freespoke into it to use it as your default search engine.
Bluey: That’s a great idea. So often the challenge is that the preloaded settings obviously favor the big competitors, so we should encourage our Daily Signal listeners to do that as well. Todd, thanks so much for being a guest on “The Daily Signal Podcast” today. We appreciate it.
Ricketts: My pleasure. I would finish by saying freedom and competition are what made our country great, and so we should never let anybody have a 90% market share of anything without a challenge at least.
Bluey: That was Todd Ricketts, co-owner of Major League Baseball’s Chicago Cubs and the founder of a new search engine called Freespoke. Visit it at Freespoke.com or download the app.
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