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Google censors search results
October 24, 2002 9:19 AM   Subscribe

Google censors search results "Google, the world's most popular search engine, has quietly deleted more than 100 controversial sites from some search result listings. "
posted by mert (53 comments total)

 
Before everyone who didn't read the linked article gets up in arms...
"Google confirmed on Wednesday that the sites had been removed from listings available at Google.fr and Google.de. The removed sites continue to appear in listings on the main Google.com site....

"'To avoid legal liability, we remove sites from Google.de search results pages that may conflict with German law,' said Google spokesman Nate Tyler. He indicated that each of the sites that were delisted came after a specific complaint from a foreign government....

"France has similar laws, which allowed a students' anti-racism group to successfully sue Yahoo in a Paris court for allowing Third Reich memorabilia and Adolf Hitler's "Mein Kampf" to be sold on the company's auction sites. In November 2001, a US judge ruled that the First Amendment's guarantee of free speech protects Yahoo from liability."
posted by DevilsAdvocate at 9:25 AM on October 24, 2002


I used to work for Amazon.com, so it drives me crazy when people accuse a private company of "censorship" for not carrying such-and-such book or listing a particular website. Governments should not censor, but businessess are free to print (or not print) , sell (or not sell), and list (or not list) whatever the hell they want, whithin the realm of legality.
posted by Shadowkeeper at 9:40 AM on October 24, 2002


They remove listing from country specific sites as required by those countries' laws?

In other news, I didn't rob a bank today.
posted by malphigian at 9:40 AM on October 24, 2002


Once upon a time, obeying laws was considered a noble thing. Now people look at it as a fault. Google has put forth an effort to remove links from localized sites for countries in which those sites were possibly illegal, and everyone's crying "censorship! censorship!"

Google is a company trying to adhere to the laws of the countries in which it operates. What in the world is wrong with that?
posted by oissubke at 9:40 AM on October 24, 2002


I used to work for Amazon.com, so it drives me crazy when people accuse a private company of "censorship" for not carrying such-and-such book or listing a particular website. Governments should not censor, but businessess are free to print (or not print) , sell (or not sell), and list (or not list) whatever the hell they want, whithin the realm of legality.

Amen. Google's just saying "You guys can have websites if you want, but don't expect us to risk legal action to promote them for you."
posted by oissubke at 9:43 AM on October 24, 2002


Once upon a time, obeying laws was considered a noble thing.

only if those who would obey view those laws as just, oissubke. i think most of those upset with these events do not view this law as just.
posted by moz at 9:49 AM on October 24, 2002


so, the Google Commandos aren't going out and shutting down those websites and imprisoning their owners then?
posted by tolkhan at 9:49 AM on October 24, 2002


My favorite line from the article is:

"China blocked access to Google last month."

I love how rather than dealing with tough issues, the world's most populace nation sticks head firmly in sand.
posted by McBain at 9:51 AM on October 24, 2002


...everyone's crying "censorship! censorship!"

Actually, based on the comments I see so far in this thread, most people seem to be cool with it. While I agree that a private company does have the right to decide what to publish and what to hold back, isn't there some danger to "corporate censorship"? Consider the one-newspaper-town, where the publisher of that one paper can exert control over the tone of political debate. When monopolistic media companies choose not to publish something, the public is deprived of that information. Individual corporations can control the marketplace of ideas; this seems dangerous in a democracy, since the people rely on the media in forming their political opinions. Do media corporations in a democratic society have a social obligation (forget about legal obligations, for the moment) to maximize the amount of information available to the public; that is, to avoid "corporate censorship"?
posted by mr_roboto at 9:55 AM on October 24, 2002


No.
posted by quercus at 10:00 AM on October 24, 2002


"Quietly deleted", my ass. This story is everywhere today, including on Google's own news page. There is no coverup. There is no controversy. The pages haven't been deleted, you just can't find them through Google. Move along.
posted by Fabulon7 at 10:08 AM on October 24, 2002


mr_roboto:

Do media corporations in a democratic society have a social obligation (forget about legal obligations, for the moment) to maximize the amount of information available to the public; that is, to avoid "corporate censorship"?

like quercus said: no. they may have a legal obligation, in the case of publicly traded corporations, and they may have a financial obligation (assuming that the dissemination of information could correspond to sales). in the one-newspaper-town, the solution by this principle would be to start a second newspaper.
posted by moz at 10:15 AM on October 24, 2002


Actually, based on the comments I see so far in this thread....

I meant "everyone" in a more general sense. The meme has (for obvious reasons) been making the rounds of the usual sites. :-)
posted by oissubke at 10:21 AM on October 24, 2002


Yes, Google is free to do what they want with their index.

Yes, Google is attempting to obey the laws in the countries in which it operates (although I personally believe the Internet should transcend national boarders - that's another bigger conversation).

It's still a mistake.

Google's only value is their index and their ability to find appropriate matches within that index in meaningful (and easy) ways. Removing sites makes them less valuable. Right now they are just a little, tiny bit less valuable, and only in a few countries. But, it sets a precedent and it makes it that much harder to fight should they determine that some county somewhere is asking them to diminish their value too much to be competitively tolerable.

Google took the easy but potentially short-sighted way out. Maybe it won't end up being a problem for them, but here begins my disillusion with them. I'll still use Google until something better comes along, but their brand is less pure in my mind. When that competitor comes along I will be slightly more inclined to give the upstart the benefit of the doubt.
posted by willnot at 10:47 AM on October 24, 2002


Once again, the Google Adoration Society misses the point in the rush to defend its idol (although your inflammatory formulation didn't help matters, mert). Did anyone bother to read to the end of the article? The real issue here is Google's lack of transparency:

Edelman...suggests that Google find a way to alert users that information is missing from their search results. "If Google is prohibited from linking to Stormfront, they could include a listing but no link," Edelman said. "And if they can't even include a listing for Stormfront, they could at least report the fact that they've hidden results from the user. The core idea here is that there's no need to be secretive."

Isn't that unnecessary secrecy disrespectful to the Internet community and the ideal of a free flow of information? There's an easy alternative: When a search includes results that have been deleted for legal reasons, a notice should appear at the top of the page with a link to details about the legal requirements. Ta da. If Google was really the information angel some believe it to be, that page would also include the listings for the banned sites, but at minimum there should be a notice.

"Quietly deleted", my ass. This story is everywhere today, including on Google's own news page. There is no coverup. There is no controversy.

See, this is what I mean. I love Google's usefulness, but that doesn't mean I turn my brain off when I think about the company. Do you really believe, Fabulon7, that Google would have announced the deletions without the release of the Harvard report? If so, I've got a faboo new site for you.
posted by mediareport at 10:50 AM on October 24, 2002


on the one hand, it seems like blatant censorship to me because the pages were delisted "after a specific complaint from a foreign government." since a government's involved, it's censorship

on the other hand, the laws are different in Germany and France and we should respect their laws.
posted by jasontromm at 10:52 AM on October 24, 2002


Chinese ISPs block access to certain sites to avoid legal liability, and that's called censorship.

There is the grey area of "corporate censorship" (i.e., if a search engine didn't provide link to sites critical of the company), but the way I see this, this is real censorship. If a company is blocking something under threat of prosecution by a government, that is censorship by the government in question.
posted by bobo123 at 10:53 AM on October 24, 2002


As seen on Slashdot (earlier this morning).
posted by hyperizer at 10:56 AM on October 24, 2002


Fabulon7 - perhaps they pressed the delete key quietly? You never know...
posted by Nauip at 11:05 AM on October 24, 2002


...the way I see this, this is real censorship. If a company is blocking something under threat of prosecution by a government, that is censorship by the government in question.

Quite right -- It's censorship by the European nations that instituted the laws that Google is trying to follow. Nobody's denying that.
posted by oissubke at 11:09 AM on October 24, 2002


Let me clarify:
I would rather Google didn't censor anything. But they are a private company, they have to obey the law, and they are doing so. If they feel that they are being wronged, they can choose to fight this. If not, they won't. It's their company.
The pages in question have not disappeared from the Internet. They have disappeared from the Google listing. So what? I work with a lot of people who have never heard of Google. Google is not the only way to find anything on the Internet.
Plus, they haven't even removed this stuff from their listings. They have removed it from their French and German listings.
Google does not have god-like powers. It is a search utility, and a good one, but that is all it is. It only becomes ubiquitous when everyone relies on it and it alone to find things on the Internet.
posted by Fabulon7 at 11:20 AM on October 24, 2002


On inspection, I don't mean that I would rather Google didn't censor anything. I mean that I would rather Google didn't 'de-list' anything because I don't believe Google is doing the censoring here--the French and German Governments are responsible for that.
posted by Fabulon7 at 11:24 AM on October 24, 2002


Once upon a time, obeying laws was considered a noble thing. Now people look at it as a fault.

Rather indicative of the changes in the government-to-citizenry relationship, isn't it?
posted by rushmc at 11:38 AM on October 24, 2002


It's all laughs when they block sites in accordance with other nations' laws; we'll see how funny it is when you can't find DeCSS on Google because of the DMCA.
posted by todds at 11:39 AM on October 24, 2002


And the secrecy, Fabulon7?
posted by mediareport at 11:43 AM on October 24, 2002


france and germany both were ranked better than the US in that "reporters without borders" list..

and people wonder why some of us are skeptical about it...
posted by wrffr at 11:59 AM on October 24, 2002


I just think it's amusing that the German government has actually made Godwin's Law official. :-)
posted by oissubke at 12:10 PM on October 24, 2002


What secrecy? Now I'm confused.
I just checked it out--here in Canada, the search for "Jesus Is Lord" returns "jesus-is-lord.com", one of the web sites reported as delisted by Google in France and in Germany.
So, it seems clearly the responsibility of those governments.

It's all laughs when they block sites in accordance with other nations' laws; we'll see how funny it is when you can't find DeCSS on Google because of the DMCA.
You are right, that would not be funny. But you know what? The DMCA is a bad law enacted by the United States Government.

It is not Google's fault that the USA has such a law on the books. It is not up to Google to change the censorship policies of the French and German governments. It is not Google's mandate to convince China to stop their censorship of the Internet.

Google is just a company that provides a searchable address book. Nothing more. They do not make these laws. To blame Google for these laws is just shooting the messenger.
posted by Fabulon7 at 12:21 PM on October 24, 2002


moz: the solution by this principle would be to start a second newspaper.

Uh-huh. So let's you and me go start a newspaper! Oh, it costs money? So much money that only very rich people can afford to do it? And then it's going to lose money for years, if not forever, so that only very rich people with a driving need to promote an agenda are going to start one? Hmm... But wait, we can Fight the Power anyway -- we can start a blog for free! And all twelve of our pals will read it! That'll show them...

Seriously: it's not as simple as saying "corporations have no obligation"; in a democratic society, there's got to be a way for people to get the information they need, and the more the media are concentrated in a few hands, the more difficult this is. It's becoming more and more of a problem in America, and talking about the legal obligations of corporations won't fix it.
posted by languagehat at 12:23 PM on October 24, 2002


mediareport put it well.

The point again, is that a private site can, of course, do what they like with their own site, but they are being dishonest if they don't tell you what they are doing.

Imagine Google launched a book seller, and inserted its sales site into the first few hits for any word contained in the current bestseller list or didn't list any site that linked to Amazon.
Legal? probably. Moral ? No!

Mattafilter can censor, salshDot can ban, Google can remove, but, morally at least, they have to be honest with their users about what they are doing.

Why is it always Google being the freedom of speech wusses anyway ?
posted by godidog at 12:35 PM on October 24, 2002


To blame Google for these laws is just shooting the messenger

Fabulon7, did you read my first comment at all? I'm faulting Google for not being upfront about the fact that a search has returned deleted results. I call that extremely disrespectful to the 'Net community.
posted by mediareport at 12:44 PM on October 24, 2002


How are they not being honest? They are upfront about the whole thing.

Search Google for "websites banned by Google" or "sites delisted by Google". Or try this on any one of the numerous other search engines. Look at the Google Sci/Tech news page.

If you are not willing to even put forth that much effort, then I would suggest that it doesn't really matter to you.

They are not hiding anything. They shouldn't be required to display banner ads on their site listing the things they've stopped listing.

It would be dishonest of them to not link to sites that told the story of them delisting sites. This is not something they have done.

Google is a "pull" medium--you ask it for information. It gives you results. In itself, it doesn't tell you anything until you ask it. Their handling of this matter is consistent with that approach.
posted by Fabulon7 at 12:45 PM on October 24, 2002


mediareport: Just saw your comment--the shooting the messenger part of the previous comment was directed at the "it won't be funny when the USA bans lookups for DeCSS" argument, not at your argument.
posted by Fabulon7 at 12:48 PM on October 24, 2002


Fabulon7, you're deliberately avoiding my point, or I'm not getting yours. Let's try again. First, the current crop of news stories only happened because someone else released a report to the press documenting Google's previously secret deletions. They were hiding the move, and have refused to respond to questions about what criteria they're using to delete sites. How can you call that "not hiding anything"?

Second, six months from now, let us suppose, someone in France will be doing a search that would pull up one of the banned sites if done by someone in the USA. The person in France will receive no notice whatsoever that their search has been constrained. That is hiding something. A simple message stating, "This search has returned one or more results that have been banned by the French government. For more info, click here." is the least the 'Net community should demand of Google.
posted by mediareport at 1:05 PM on October 24, 2002


google is the shit and it is free. who are you to be making demands?
posted by techgnollogic at 1:21 PM on October 24, 2002


google is the shit and it is free. who are you to be making demands?

Ladies and germs, I present the Google Admiration Society credo. Sweetie, I'm just a regular Google user. If they started charging a reasonable subscription fee, I'd almost certainly find a way to pay it. That they're choosing to use a different business model is their decision, not mine. But it certainly doesn't mean they should be allowed to get away with deleting sites from their index without telling us, or failing to explain their criteria for doing so.

Yeesh. Is there a sign over the door of the First Baptist Church of Google that says "Check All Brains Before Entering"?
posted by mediareport at 1:54 PM on October 24, 2002


on the other hand, the laws are different in Germany and France and we should respect their laws.

I don't think it's exactly we who should respect their laws, but more that products directly targeted to a specific country should respect the laws of that country. I do think they should have some disclaimer when searches have been constrained or censored by the laws or policies of a particular government, and I'm sure they will add it. This seems to be something fairly new for Google.

I also think a question that should be asked is, why does Google seem to be the only search engine being subjected to these laws (eg. relevant msn.de and altavista.de searches), and why is it the only target of this study? Wouldn't a more reasoned study have included a number of major search engines?

They are doing plenty of research into Internet filtering, so is Google the only one being asked, and complying with specific national laws?

On preview:
"But it certainly doesn't mean they should be allowed to get away with..."

mediareport, I really don't think Google was trying to get away with anything. Do we know how long this practice has been in effect? The testing was done between October 4 to 21, 2002, so it's hard to pin them down and say that Google has been trying to get away with censoring sites without telling anyone.
posted by mikhail at 2:08 PM on October 24, 2002


languagehat:

Uh-huh. So let's you and me go start a newspaper! Oh, it costs money? So much money that only very rich people can afford to do it? And then it's going to lose money for years, if not forever, so that only very rich people with a driving need to promote an agenda are going to start one? Hmm... But wait, we can Fight the Power anyway -- we can start a blog for free! And all twelve of our pals will read it! That'll show them...

if starting a company costs money, then one must seek out investments and loans. perhaps that comes from a bank, or friends; why should that be considered a problem? other companies are formed and succeed in spite of this issue you raise.

the idea that the paper must, necessarily, lose money for years is a foolish one. why? is there a law that mandates
debt in the first few years of a newspaper? how do other publications survive? the challenge of a newspaper that does not present (what in the minds of the editors are) skewed content is to make it marketable to others; not merely to present them and expect profit.

with your lacking optimism, languagehat, i shall regretably inform you that you would not be the CEO of our fledgling newspaper.
posted by moz at 3:14 PM on October 24, 2002


First, the current crop of news stories only happened because someone else released a report to the press documenting Google's previously secret deletions.

You want Google to hold a press conference every time they delist something? Not announcing it doesn't equal hiding it. They did something that is A) a normal, everyday activity, B) legal, and C) not really anyone's business, seeing as they are a private company, with no legal or moral obligation to list anything that they don't want to list, much less things that are illegal in some places. They could delete all websites starting with the letter M if they wanted to, it's their index. They own it.

Second, six months from now, let us suppose, someone in France will be doing a search that would pull up one of the banned sites if done by someone in the USA. The person in France will receive no notice whatsoever that their search has been constrained.

Yeah, and they should demand their money back!

Seriously, so what? Google, as a private company, isn't obligated to tell anyone what sites they've delisted. They are a private company, so censorship laws don't apply.

Google doesn't list every possible site on the internet, even before they delist things - some sites aren't indexed yet, or are poorly constructed and can't be indexed, or have their robots.txt file set to disallow indexing. Want to flame them for "constraining" your search for things that aren't even indexed? That makes about as much sense.
posted by RylandDotNet at 3:16 PM on October 24, 2002


it's hard to pin them down and say that Google has been trying to get away with censoring sites without telling anyone.

It's hard to pin *anyone* down when they refuse to answer your questions, isn't it? McCullough doesn't mention if he asked how long the deletions had been going on, but it's a good bet that Google wouldn't have given him an answer on that one, either. I do hope you turn out to be right about the disclaimer, mikhail, but based on Google's response so far, I doubt it.

why is it the only target of this study?

According to the article, Edelman says he was acting on a specific tip about Google's German-language version. But I agree, it would have been nice to see something about how other search engines are reacting to the French and German laws. Btw, it's worth pointing out again that Edelman, a first-year law student, was "a plaintiff in a second lawsuit filed in June to eviscerate key portions of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act." Unlike this guy, there doesn't seem to be an anti-Google axe to grind here.
posted by mediareport at 3:20 PM on October 24, 2002


Oops. This guy
posted by mediareport at 3:23 PM on October 24, 2002


You want Google to hold a press conference every time they delist something?

Yeah, that's what I said. *rolls eyes* Come on, RylandDotNet. Since you missed it the first time:

A simple message stating, "This search has returned one or more results that have been banned by the French government. For more info, click here." is the least the 'Net community should demand of Google.

On the press front, a single press release announcing the start of the delistings as a new Google policy to comply with French and German law, along with a general statement about how the process works (complaint, check, delist) would suffice, thanks.

Google, as a private company, isn't obligated to tell anyone what sites they've delisted.

The "private company" thing obscures the difference between a legal obligation and a moral obligation. We'll disagree here: Any company that values the goodwill Google currently enjoys *does* have a moral obligation to treat its clientele with respect, which in this case means living up to the ideal of an open and transparent 'Net. And that means telling us when our searches are being *deliberately* constrained.

They are a private company, so censorship laws don't apply.

Who's arguing that they do? I'm sure not. But the more Google pulls this kind of secretive crap, the better the idea of recreating it as a public utility looks.
posted by mediareport at 3:37 PM on October 24, 2002


And if they can't even include a listing for Stormfront, they could at least report the fact that they've hidden results from the user. The core idea here is that there's no need to be secretive.

Perhaps a slight modification of Google's output could do the job:

"1457 sites returned; 34 hidden. Click here for a listing of hidden sites.

Also, there are 63 relevant sites which Google did not find.

Have a nice day."
posted by namespan at 5:41 PM on October 24, 2002


Whew. Went away for a while and everything turned ugly.
mediareport--I agree with you. I think it would be a good thing if Google had a thing that said 'this search returned one or more sites that we do not list' and maybe even include the reason(s) those were de-listed.
I don't think they owe us that, but I think it would be the right thing to do, yes.
For the record, I'm not a member of the Google Admiration society. I like it, I use it, but I use other things too. I guess that's why this doesn't seem to be such a big deal to me.
posted by Fabulon7 at 6:10 PM on October 24, 2002


namespan--I suggested that already, but it doesn't really address mediareport's point. Because if I am searching for 'i-hate-[ethnicity]' sites, and Google says 'There Were 0 Records Matching Your Search', how am I to know I should try searching for sites that have been censored?
posted by Fabulon7 at 6:13 PM on October 24, 2002


Well, is anything stopping someone in Germany or France from Googling on Google.com, rather than Google.de or Google.fr?
posted by kayjay at 6:19 PM on October 24, 2002


I haven't tried anything tricky, but I get auto-routed to Google.ca when I try to get Google.com...
posted by Fabulon7 at 6:31 PM on October 24, 2002


But the more Google pulls this kind of secretive crap, the better the idea of recreating it as a public utility looks.

I think you'd have better luck getting Google to match your vision if it remained private than if became a public entity. The people who write the laws that say you can't see certain types of information presumably want it to be a black hole.
posted by claxton6 at 6:59 PM on October 24, 2002


A simple message stating, "This search has returned one or more results that have been banned by the French government. For more info, click here." is the least the 'Net community should demand of Google.

I agree with this.
posted by rushmc at 7:37 PM on October 24, 2002


It's hard to pin *anyone* down when they refuse to answer your questions, isn't it? McCullough doesn't mention if he asked how long the deletions had been going on, but it's a good bet that Google wouldn't have given him an answer on that one, either.

Actually they seemed to have answered many of McCullogh's questions.

"Google confirmed on Wednesday..."
"'...may conflict with German law,' said Google spokesman Nate Tyler."
"Tyler said an internal ..."
"Tyler pointed to ..."

The only time Google didn't directly answer was in response to a CNET email.

"Google refused to reply to a list of questions that CNET News.com sent via e-mail, including which sites have been delisted, how many sites have been delisted, what standards are used, and what other Google-operated sites have less-than-complete listings."

They did respond though:

"In an e-mailed response, Google's Tyler said: "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. ..."

I agree they may have handled this policy poorly, but again, I fully expect Google to implement some sort of disclaimer. That certainly would be the right thing to do.
posted by mikhail at 8:14 PM on October 24, 2002


About that redirection: I'm in Canada, too, but on my home machine, using a Canadian ISP, I can get to google.com anytime wtihout having to go to google.ca instead. Is anyone else finding that they get redirected?
posted by maudlin at 10:40 PM on October 24, 2002


maudlin, all fine in the UK. Although I have to say I tend to use the .co.uk version of Google anyway...
posted by twine42 at 1:13 AM on October 25, 2002


At work, I get auto-redirected and can't do a thing about it. At home, I get redirected (rogers cable is the ISP) and can't do anything about it. (Although I might be able to if I were to get tricky, but I don't see the point.)
posted by Fabulon7 at 6:04 AM on October 25, 2002


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