The world has known for some time that Google’s algorithm can be programmed to censor websites and keywords. Back in 2005, CNET claimed all its reporters were blacklisted for a year for posting information about your CEO Eric Schmidt -- information that was publicly available through Google’s own search engine.
On a grander scale, Google also proved its willingness to censor political speech when it set up shop in China, although now your company is threatening to pull out because of cyberattacks on your infrastructure. Unsurprisingly, spying took place against human rights activists in China. Now you claim Google is “. . . no longer willing to continue censoring our results.” I hope that’s true, but I’m not convinced. Regardless of your initial “good intentions” in opening China to the world, dealing with communist dictators always leads to predictable results, so your corporate motto “Don’t Be Evil” has now been tarnished.
Google also supports censoring sites that criticize some Islamic beliefs and practices. In early 2006 Google removed several news sites from its news search engine because complaints were received about various articles that were critical of Islam. These included the New Media Journal, MichNews, and The Jawa Report. These sites remain accessible from Google's main search page, but apparently are no longer included in Google News. Google responded by saying "We do not allow articles and sources expressly promoting hate speech viewpoints in Google News, although referencing hate speech for commentary and analysis is acceptable". So, Google admits to being the arbiter of what is and isn’t hate speech. Therefore, we must assume your company’s views are in line with European thoughts and laws concerning censorship. You are willing practitioners.
Unfortunately, there is plenty of hate in the world. I personally despise the venom spewed by Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and his ilk, Islamo-fascists like the Muslim cleric who debated Wafa Sultan (here, here, and here), skinheads, and communist dictators like Hugo Chavez to name a few. Has Google censored any of their speech? Only Google knows the answer.
In truth, and as much as I am offended by the speech of the aforementioned people, there is strategic value in hearing their hateful words. In The Art of War, Sun Tzu said “If you know others and know yourself, you will not be imperiled in a hundred battles; if you do not know others but know yourself, you win one and lose one; if you do not know others and do not know yourself, you will be imperiled in every single battle.” I understand his remarks to mean we must know what our enemies think before we can know how to defeat them. Hiding our enemies words from us, imperils our safety.
On a positive note, your censorship practices superficially appear to be under reconsideration. In December 2009 Google had this to say about Australia’s plan to move to mandatory ISP filtering:
"Exposing politically controversial topics for public debate is vital for democracy. Homosexuality was a crime in Australia until 1976 in ACT, NSW in 1984 and 1997 in Tasmania," wrote Google, "Political and social norms change over time and benefit from intense public scrutiny and debate. The openness of the internet makes this all the more possible and should be protected." The proof will be in how you handle this problem.
In fairness to the Google team, I am also aware that technical bugs exist which give the appearance of censorship, as in 2003 when the Google-NACK bug is claimed to have blocked thousands of websites, and when your company was accused of biased keyword searches beginning with “christianity is” as compared to similar searches beginning with “Islam is”. About a week ago I tested the keywords and found the complaint to be credible. A few days later the “bug” had been fixed.
Up to this point I have outlined your company’s large-scale attempts to censor political speech around the world. Now my concern becomes very personal.
Google’s corporate website claims “We stand alone in our focus on developing the "perfect search engine," defined by co-founder Larry Page as something that, "understands exactly what you mean and gives you back exactly what you want."
If only that were always true, and if only I could trust you. Before I explain my personal experience with Google censorship, I think it important to give some background information to explain my distrust, beyond what I’ve already cited.
Your CEO, Eric Schmidt, and a number of other Google employees have partnered with, and even joined, the Obama administration. On the one hand, you could argue that you did so for altruistic reasons in order to benefit the American public, perhaps even the world. Or maybe you simply did so out of self interest, the desire to earn lots of money. A third reason might be because you believe in Obama’s statist vision of net neutrality, and look forward to the power you’ll have to implement that shared vision.
This backgrounder reveals that you are linked to President Obama at the hip. You support his views, you enjoy the power relationship this partnership gives you, and will therefore be likely to do all you can in large and small ways to protect your man and his administration. This is where your algorithm, rogue employees, and/or company policy comes into the censorship picture on American shores.
For example, in November 2009, your team removed an image of Michelle Obama that offended your sensibilities. The incident was described on SearchEngineLand.com as follows:
In a Google Web Search Help Forum thread discussing the image, a Google employee named Jem explained yesterday that there are three reasons why Google would remove content from its index:I have no idea whether that site contained malware or not, but the contradictory search results makes me doubt that to be true.
“… Google views the integrity of our search results as an extremely important priority. Accordingly, we do not remove a page from our search results, or images from our Google Images results, simply because the content is in very poor taste or because we receive complaints concerning it. We will, however, remove pages from our results if we believe the image, page (or its site) violates our Webmaster Guidelines, if we believe we are required to do so by law, or at the request of the webmaster who is responsible for the image.“
An offensive photo of Michelle Obama doesn’t obviously violate any of those three guidelines on its own. Google’s press office has yet to respond to our request for an official statement. But in the comments of today’s Search Engine Roundtable post, Google’s Matt Cutts says the site was violating Google’s webmaster guidelines:
“… that page did violate our webmaster guidelines because it was serving malware to users, which violates the quality guideline that says ‘Don’t create pages with malicious behavior, such as phishing or installing viruses, trojans, or other badware.’ I believe that the Images team did a general anti-malware sweep.”
Sure enough, a [site:] search for the site in Google Images produces no results. But the malware sweep apparently didn’t reach the main web search index. As Michael Gray points out on SER, the site itself is still listed in Google.com search results with no malware warning.
Now to my two personal experiences with Google censorship.
My blog, Jefferson’s Rebels, is relatively new. JR is a conservative site that came into being because of profound concerns about Obama and the Democrat-controlled congress. In this regard my site is not unique as there are an exponentially growing number of conservative sites on the internet thanks to the statist activities of Obama and the Democrats.
Perhaps not surprisingly, both of my censorship experiences are linked to challenges to Obama’s eligibility based on his dual citizenship with the U.K. and the definition of an Article 2, Sec. 1, Clause 5 “natural born Citizen”. This eligibility status legally supercedes the question of whether or not Obama was born in the U.S.
On January 14, 2010, I uploaded a graphic to my blog labeled “Obama is a Coward.jpg”. The graphic accompanied the reprint of an article by Zack Jones titled “Obama’s Presidential Eligibility?” My blog title accompanying this article is also labeled “Obama is a Coward!”
At this writing, the image will not appear on a search results page, even though I enter the exact keywords for the image. The image should be at the top of the list of the first page. If I do a text search for “Obama is a Coward!”, the article also does not appear, although there are loads of other sites found using those keywords. If I do a keyword search using both “Obama is a Coward” and “Jefferson’s Rebels” in quotes, I finally get a semi-positive search result. Instead of a direct link to the article appearing at the top of the results list, Google links to the home page and whatever article is at the top, followed by ellipses, and then a reference to the article I was seeking. The closest, direct link to my graphic appears third down on the page, and that reference links to Scribd where I posted a pdf of the image.
I reported this problem on Google’s Webmaster Central forum, and not surprisingly, was told to be patient because “It can take several weeks for images to be included in the search engines.”
If I had not developed the regular habit of searching for articles posted on my blog immediately after uploading them, I might be willing to believe that statement. Based on an earlier experience explained next, all of the articles and jpegs that I have searched for were immediately indexed after uploading. Something smelled fishy in Googleland.
My earlier censorship experience involved three related images labeled “Quo Warranto To Remove Obama From Office” which were uploaded on November 28, 2009. For some reason it wasn’t until December 31, 2009 that I Googled to see if the images were indexed. The images were nowhere to be found, except for PDF copies posted on Scribd. Immediately I complained on the Google forum where one person replied “Maybe because political subjects deserve a special care from G.” In his subsequent comment, that same person disagreed with my political arguments. Fortunately, a few days after the forum discussion, the three jpegs magically appeared in first place on the search results page. Maybe putting a bug into someone's ear made a difference. I now wonder and hope the same will occur with “Obama is a Coward!”
Based on all the evidence outlined in this open letter, I hope you can understand why my trust in Google is shattered.
So here we are with a conundrum. Google claims it wants to make its search engine available to everyone around the world, which is why you went behind the Great Wall of China. At the same time, you say “Don’t Be Evil”, and then you do evil by censoring speech. You join arms with the Obama administration to enhance your power and your pocketbook, all the while telling us you want to increase everyone’s access to the internet, but yet you support net neutrality which will limit speech. Furthermore, you also censor some people’s speech when it concerns your CEO, and the man in the White House. How far are you willing to go in the last regard?
Frankly, from what I’ve seen so far, I take no comfort in knowing that you are aligning Google with the CIA, the FBI, and the National Security Agency to develop a huge internal government intranet. With a man like our current Marxist president, Barack Obama, in control of those agencies, we have to ask you again, how far are you willing to go to censor speech in America?
Just how powerful does Google want or even need to be in the world?