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Friday, 25 October, 2002, 11:38 GMT 12:38 UK
Google censoring web content
Should Google decide what counts as an unacceptable website? Technology consultant Bill Thompson doesn't think so.
Since its creation in 1998 Google - at www.google.com, as you probably know already - has become the world's best search engine and the starting point of choice for almost all my web queries.
It has even generated its own verb - to do some googling around means sitting there playing with queries and exploring the obscure parts of the Web that are revealed by looking for odd or even improperly spelled phrases.
Nobody expects Google, or any index, to be perfect, since the Web is growing and changing so fast and many parts of it are generated from databases and therefore essentially impossible for a search engine to find or classify.
However, researchers at the highly-respected Berkman Center for Internet and Society at Harvard University have found that the company is actively removing sites from its database, and that this censorship is going unnoticed.
Jonathan Zittrain and Benjamin Edelman have built up a reputation for their careful analysis of the ways in which web content is filtered, censored and controlled.
They have looked in detail at the practices of national governments, specifically China and Saudi Arabia, and provided lots of useful information for those of us who want to promote freedom of speech both online and offline.
They have discovered over one hundred sites which can be found by searchers in the US but not by those in Germany or France.
They are mostly sites that feature racist material or that deny the existence of the Holocaust, such as Stormfront, a white pride site filled with white nationalist essays by former Ku Klux Klan leader David Duke.
Responding to the discovery, Google spokesman Nate Tyler said on tech news programme ZDNN that the sites were removed to avoid the possibility of legal action being taken against the company, and that each site was removed only after a specific complaint from the government of the country concerned.
On first sight this seems perfectly reasonable - after all, Google isn't a public service but a private company trying to make money out of its technology and database, and it has no obligation to index everything.
It certainly has a duty to its owners (it's a privately held company) to stay out of legal battles with governments, since they can be pretty expensive.
Unfortunately things are not that simple, and the censorship of the French and German versions of the Google database is a clear demonstration of just what is wrong with internet regulation today.
What is happening is that a government is saying to Google: 'we don't like that website - so drop it from your database' and the company is acquiescing.
The people running the website aren't told. The people looking for the website aren't told - they aren't even told that this policy exists.
The rest of us aren't being told either - Google's Nate Tyler said clearly that 'as a matter of company policy we do not provide specific details about why or when we removed any one particular site from our index.'
No due process
The result is that one of the web's most important tools is being deliberately broken at the request of governments, with no publicity, no legal review and no court orders.
The sites involved may or may not be illegal in France or Germany - we don't know because the case never comes to court, and is never tested. All we know is that they aren't wanted.
I agree with our current laws against child pornography and have no difficulty at all endorsing the view that these sites should not be allowed online.
I'll support the team at Google if they want to spend their time removing them. In fact, a search for 'lolita pictures' finds 291,000 entries in the US index, so this is obviously less of a priority for them.
The problem is that Google itself is deciding what should be censored and that its motives are entirely commercial, making it possible for government agencies to influence it without having to go through due process or defend their requests in public.
I believe we need to move towards an internet that is properly regulated, where decisions like this can only be made through the courts.
I would rather have a net where Google and other search engine providers had a legal obligation to provide full and comprehensive results to the best of their technical ability and to inform searchers of any areas where content had been removed from their index on legal grounds, even if that also gives governments the ability to block certain sites from the index.
I know that would give the government of the People's Republic of China the power to censor what their citizens can see online - but they have that power already and use it, building firewalls and filters around their part of the net.
At least if the whole internet was properly regulated and brought into the legal framework that governs all other areas of our life we would be able to have a sensible discussion about the limits of regulation and control.
As it is, we have private companies like Google deciding what we can and can't see based on their self-interested readings of poorly-drafted national laws, taking advice from unnamed and unaccountable Government agencies and telling nobody what is going on.
Anything has to be better than that, surely?
And what happens when someone in the French Ministry of Culture reads this article and decides that, by giving publicity to Stormfront, I am acting against the French public interest?
Will they dispatch a quick e-mail to Google and ask them to remove this page - or this whole site - from their index?
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