On google, censorship and sensational web journalism

One of the more general tech sites I follow, Ars Technica dropped what seems to be a big bomb.

Apparently, Google has turned autocomplete censorship on. Well, that was the message I got from the title of the post. I’ll duplicate it here for the purposes of discussion:

“Google flips the switch on autocomplete censorship”.


My spidey senses instantly went on the alert and being a good geek I did some testing.

Work with me if you like. Open a tab with google. Make sure you have safesearch off. Type ‘por’ in the search bar. My list includes “ports of auckland” and “porsche”, and I’m sure yours are similar with regional variance.

Now, be brave. Steel yourself. Type an ‘n’. Do not search, do not hit enter. I will not be held liable if you so do .

What does your autocomplete show? So long as they haven’t changed their policy (which admittedly they are wont to do), nothing. You have to decide to search for that particular string. Google won’t do it for you.

If you’re still searching, you’re doing it wrong.

Why wouldn’t they? Of course google has a thesaurus behind their product. Of course some legal and ethical discussions need to be had as to what to include and disinclude in that thesaurus. We don’t want our 10 year olds looking for pictures of cars and finding a suggestion for something entirely different three letters in.

In my ideal world, parents lovingly sit with their children every damn moment they browse, but that’s not the real world. Google is responding to protect young people who have web access every where they go, and I personally endorse that policy as a professional who works with children.

This effectively refutes the first half of the premise. Modification of autocomplete’s response database by google for ethical and/or legal reasons is not a new or sudden thing. It is a new instance in an established line of organisational thought.

At the end of the day, if you’re not happy with google, construct your own personal search algorithm. It’s easy to do: Tweak your information streams* so that you want is coming to you. Treat google as a database to support follow-up research. That’s what I do, and I don’t feel nearly so appalled by what they do. If you’re data-aware enough to complain, you’re data aware enough to devise and educate about alternatives.

But what about the “c” word!

This means the discussion’s merit rest solely the word censorship, not with any suddenness of the decision. This  is trivially easy to refute.

I would describe effective censorship as that which creates conditions of unreasonable duress around access to information.

“Bittorrent” is 10 characters. Is it unreasonable duress to type ten characters before being provided full an unrestricted access to search results ranking the bittorrent website at the top? No. It’s access. Google are neither hastening nor, as the article suggests, preventing the downfall of established media.

What could have been said instead?

There is definitely a  discussion, even an important one here. Google provides autocomplete support for “homemade bomb”, “bong” and I’m sure many other tools equally commonly associated as file sharing with illegal activity. What ethical and legal considerations make these, which can potentially harm lives, more acceptable?

This was not examined. The author, a senior editor, dashed off the quickest article they could without consideration of the full picture. What were they thinking? Is currency more important than reason?

*By following blogs, twiplets etc who develop your thinking. There is more good content out there about what you’re into than you can read. Keeping an eye to modifying your streams will enable you to develop and focus those interests.


About seanmurgatroyd
Library (Shared blog): http://diligentroom.wordpress.com/ Personal including infoculture, book reviews: http://diligentroom.wordpress.com/ Music: http://seanfishmusic.wordpress.com/ Last.fm band page: http://www.last.fm/music/Seanfish @seanfish

3 Responses to On google, censorship and sensational web journalism

  1. Gareth says:

    I wouldn’t argue with their right to censor the auto-complete results, but I do take issue with their implied morals and I think they should be consistent.

    I have a problem with refusing to complete “bittorrent”, but happily auto-completing “How to kidnap a child”, “Mustard gas formula” etc. http://www.boingboing.net/2011/01/27/google-wont-autocomp.html

    I also have a problem with the back door approach. They should make their morals explicit and say this is what we’re against, this is what we won’t censor. Instead, along with Apple, it’s “well, we’re against some things. You’ll find out what they are when you discover we’ve censored them.

    If someone has heard of bittorrenting through a friend and isn’t clear on the terminology, Google’s not going to help them find it.

    • seanmurgatroyd says:

      Oh too right, as I mention with my bomb/bong example above. They pick and choose their issues.

      I’ve had parellel (but less emotive) problems with Google when it launched it’s magazine service – they refused to give a listing of available titles, making it an essentially unscoped database.

      There seems to a disconnect there which I suspect arises over the fact that whatever their aims they are still a large organisation, and there is always going to be knowledge around their algorithms that their business/lawyer people define as proprietary.

      I still don’t see this as censorship – I can’t imagine a situation where someone hears of bittorrent, can’t spell it and is then incapable of going back to the friend for further advice. For that matter, I just put “bitturrent” in my search box and google autocorrected me to bittorrent in the search.

      There are access issues here, sure, but save the big guns like the “C” word for when they are actually in any real way preventing significant information access. That’s exactly what I’m talking about in the original article.

      • Gareth says:

        I’ll cede you the unlikelihood of being stymied by Google’s efforts, but I do think it is censorship. Not a top priority case, but creeping subtle censorship nonetheless. Still, in some situations censorship is appropriate and encouraged.

        Which is more important to censor, child kidnapping, bittorrents, or both? For Google, the answer is clearly just bittorrent.

        I think that that window into their organisational morals is more important than worrying that they are trying to suppress knowledge of bittorrenting.

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