Google Search and Censorship

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With the recent penalization of MyBlogGuest, I felt compelled to write on the unique phenomena of Google censorship, teasing out what Google's policy seems to be on the issue and determining whether it means an objective set of guidelines.

What is Censorship

I think the formal definition provided by Wikipedia is quite accurate as it gives us a neutral viewpoint towards censorship.

"Censorship is the suppression of speech or other public communication which may be considered objectionable, harmful, sensitive, politically incorrect or inconvenient as determined by a government, media outlet or other controlling body." wikipedia.org

There are several things we should take away from this definition of censorship and how it may pertain to Google.

  1. Censorship is not necessarily unethical. There may be times in which censorship is warranted. I will address these later.
  2. Censorship may be engaged in by a large number of parties - simply those with control over some information. It doesn't need to be a government, for example.
  3. The communication needs to be "public". This is an interesting subject matter altogether.
  4. The act itself is generally reason independent, that is to say that the act of censoring is censoring regardless of the quality, accuracy, or defensibility of the reason for censoring. It may be warranted, but it is still censorship.

It is at this point that I want to be clear - censorship is not necessarily bad. When I use the term, I do not mean it in any pejorative sense. What I mean to show is that a particular type of censorship which Google is undertaking does not meet our standard of warranted censorship.

What is Google's Position on Censorship

It is difficult to determine a specific overarching policy on Google and censorship. We get glimpses of it as it defends its position in courts and in its Terms of Use guidelines and Webmaster Guidelines that describe in detail when and how Google might choose to censor certain content. For example, we know that Google will censor content that violates the Webmaster Guidelines.

How has Google Handled Censorship in the Past

I won't begrudge you with the details here. There is an excellent post here on Wikipedia outlining Google's enforcement or non-enforcement of its censorship policies. What is remarkably missing from this discussion seems to be the overarching form of censorship which Google employs most commonly - censorship of content based on violation of the Webmaster Guidelines. Censorship in Google's eyes has almost only dealth with censorship that they are forced to undertake by the government. This is, of course, a narrow view of censorship given the definition provided above. Google's more common methodology, punitive penalization of sites beyond merely ignoring or equally counteracting their manipulative practices. is an act of censorship of debatable warrant, which I intend to show.

Google and Organic Search Censorship

There are essentially 5 forms of Google organic censorship that I think we should consider here. Many of these we could call de facto censorship in that they are not necessarily intended to suppress but do in their very function suppress information.

  1. General Ranking Censorship
  2. Soft Censorship
  3. Censorship by Devaluation
  4. Censorship of Perpetrator by Penalty
  5. Censorship of Advocate / Facilitator by Penalty

General Ranking Censorship

When Google applies its ranking algorithm, by its very nature it censors some content. Some content is readily and easily accessible via search, while some content is difficult to find. This type of censorship seems obvious and intuitive, if not intrinsically valuable. This intuition is correct because the warrant or justification for the censorship is not found in the wishes of the information controller (Google) but in the wishes of the audience itself. The audience wants the most relevant, important information so Google's censorship of non-relevant, non-important information is warranted. In fact, this is the reason why most censorship is warranted. A radio station chooses to censor, or not play, music that its users do not in fact want. It still qualifies in the definition of censorship as it would be "inconvenient" for the user to have to listen to all music just to find the music he or she wants. This is the strongest, most defensible reason for censorship that exists - audience expectation and desire.

Soft Censorship

This type of censorship is what most of us are familiar with on a daily basis. This is the method by which media providers make certain types of content more difficult to access because at least some percentage of their audience would find the material particularly offensive. For example, a television station might relegate adult content to late hours at night to avoid the potential of children seeing that content. Similarly, Google makes adult content accessible only through very specific queries. Even though a term might cross over between an adult and non-adult usage, Google would apply soft censorship to that term, only showing adult results if the term were modified to make it more explicit. This type of censorship, by and large, finds warrant as well in that it meets audience expectation and desire. The media provider must find a balance between what some of their users want and some of their users don't want. In doing so, they try and strike a happy medium of soft censorship, where information is still available but it might require a little more effort to attain.

Censorship by Devaluation

Because of the nature of Google's ranking processes, there are methods by which we can attempt to manipulate the results. Google has long attempted to create algorithmic solutions that devalue or ignore particular ranking factors that it believes to be manipulated. In doing so, it is offering corrections that in theory would bring back the correct order of relevant, important information. In fact, it is hard to describe a real difference between this and type #1, General Ranking Censorship. As long as the method deliberately attempts to restore the correct order, it is warranted through meeting audience expectation and desire.

Censorship of Manipulated Results by Penalty

This is where things start to get hazy. Through both algorithmic and manual methods, Google censors content that it believes has violated their Webmaster Guidelines in attempting to manipulate search results. What is most important to note here is that Google's punitive approach via penalty is incongruous in magnitude to audience expectation and desire. For example, when JC Penney was penalized for buying links, the penalty levied on JC Penney resulted in JC Penney not ranking for its own brand name. This is not an uncommon type of penalty. Unfortunately, audience expectation and desire are damaged by this punitive act of censorship. While Google is correct in that JC Penney has enjoyed an unfair exposure in the search results prior to the penalty, the justification in censorship must come from the realization of the users' interests, not Google's or JC Penney's.

Now, one might argue here that the penalization is necessarily increases the speed with which the natural order is returned in that JC Penney fixes its manipulation. Unfortunately, we know that far too many companies are unable to fix their link profiles to reasonably believe that penalizing a brand name, for example, would lead to a quicker correction. Moreover, we would be assuming that loss of all rankings other than brand would not suffice. Finally, one would be wrong to assume that brand alone is the only term for which user expectations and desires were being mishandled - it just happens to be the clearest. That JC Penney would lose rankings for certain products that might be only available within a certain distance of a searcher would be another example of a term for which the punitive response could not be justified by audience expectation or desire. Yet another justification for the penalization is "convenience" to Google. That is to say that Google is incapable of correctly determining the manipulation degree and thus makes a best guess. This seems highly implausible given the arbitrary degree of the penalties (is Google's best guess really +50 on all terms?).

Censorship of Advocate/Facilitator by Penalty

And here lies the grossest of manipulations by Google. The penalization of sites like iAcquire and MyBlogGuest indicate that Google is willing to move beyond simply penalizing the perpetrators, but penalizing the advocates or facilitators. It is nearly impossible to contrive an ethical stance upon which this type of censorship would be justified. It certainly does not improve the user expectation or desire to be unable to find these websites. On what other grounds might we find warrant? Google and its supporters could claim that it is to remove the potential for harm done to webmasters. That is to say that by allowing these sites to rank could lead webmasters to employ techniques that could harm their own sites. Unfortunately, this argument fails in a number of obvious ways...

  1. It cannot explain Google's choice to remain ambivalent towards sites that offer the identical services
  2. It cannot explain why Google does not censor results like those for "how to cure aids with herbs" which could easily lead to death, a far worse outcome than getting penalized in Google

Of course, all the failed justifications of Type 4 (Censorship of Manipulated Results by Penalty) fail because these results are not themselves manipulated. The only plausible reason for this censorship is that it is Google's own self interest to censor sites that advertise techniques that offer alternatives to Google Adwords in their search results but are compelled to restrain themselves from full censorship of all violators to avoid unwanted attention for this practice.

Conclusions

It seems apparent that Google's choice of censoring sites - both through censoring results to arbitrary degrees via algorithmic or manual penalties, and most certainly through censorship of advocates/facilitators of search manipulation (SEOs or SEO tools) - are without justified warrant. We can claim with good reason that this behavior is unethical and, given the only plausible reason (to stifle the alternative advertising method of SEO) likely an unfair business practice. So what are we to do? I leave this up to you, the reader, but I think the following question should offer some guidance: Should you grant speech to those that seek to to fetter yours?

Comments

well thought, but...

I think you jump to the conclusion that Google is "compelled to restraing themselves from full censorship of all violators to avoid unwanted attention for this practice". I doubt that the actual perpetrators of this form of censorship, ie: the Quality Team, is really considering their practice from a philosophical vantage point at all. They probably don't view what they are doing as a form of censorship at all because they don't think that content distributed through Google should be considered "Public". You said that was an interesting point and it is specifically because that presents a defeater of your position if Google can claim that their search results are not a Public communication. I think this would be hard of them to say since they don't restrict access to Google in any way nor do they require any for of private contract for usage of their services, but it is still a justification in their minds. Nevertheless, this was a very thought provoking piece.

You state your argument very

You state your argument very well, but at the end of the day, I doubt the courts will ever find Google's censorship of their SERPs to be inappropriate. The only direction from which any punishment is likely to come to the company is from users. And the harsh truth is that those of us that are even aware of the problem are a miniscule portion of their user base. Not to say that's a reason to roll over and accept it, by any means... just that I don't see any change in the near future.

The only way I can see the FTC ever leaning hard on Google would be if their case against them was based upon proven deliberate actions to force people to buy ads. And I think that would be a very difficult case to prosecute.

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