Tuesday, June 22, 2021

Google Wrestles With Growth of Censorship

In the wake of Google’s controversial decision to flaunt Chinese authorities and stop censoring results at its Google.cn page, the search leader on Monday attempted to explain both the scope of the issues it sees in play and its own policies.

Google said China is “the most polarizing,” but hardly the only example, of government attempts to control content. Since 2002, the number of governments that censor has grown from about four to over 40 today, according to the Open Net Initiative.

In the case of China, Google (NASDAQ: GOOG) had threatened to pull out of the China market over censorship and a series of cyber attacks on its systems and on human rights advocates that Google said originated from China, possibly by entities connected with the government there.

In response, Google began offering uncensored results at its Google.cn home page, but offered them via a redirect from Hong Kong where China does not enforce strict content censorship. China responded by continuing to block links from search results it deems objectionable, but has not yet shut Google’s Hong Kong site down or taken any punitive measures against the company, as some officials had warned could happen.

Google this week said its policies for dealing with censorship continue to evolve.

“Decisions to allow, restrict or remove content from our services and products often require difficult judgment calls,” said Rachel Whetstone, Google’s vice president for global communications and public affairs, in the blog post.

“We have spirited debates about the right course of action, whether it’s about our own content policies or the extent to which we resist a government request,” Whetstone said. “In the end, we rely on the principles that sit at the heart of everything we do … We have a bias in favor of people’s right to free expression. We are driven by a belief that more information means more choice, more freedom and ultimately more power for the individual.”

Not only search results face censorship

In detailing the scope of the issue, Whetstone noted that a range of Google services — from search and Blogger to YouTube and Google Docs — have been blocked in 25 of the 100 countries where they are offered.

“In addition, we regularly receive government requests to restrict or remove content from our properties,” she said.

When Google does comply, as it had done earlier in China, it makes a point of noting where it’s been required to block or remove content. In contrast, when China censors a result directly, the user typically gets an error message or some generic note that the site is inaccessible.

Whetstone said Google’s ad products have the most restrictive policies because they are commercial products intended to generate revenue. Google’s auction-based AdWords program has faced various legal actions such as companies complaining when trademarked names are purchased by competitors to use as keywords in search ads. Google has instituted some limited restrictions on trademark use.

Google’s core search service is the least restrictive of its offerings, however.

“We do not remove content from search globally except in narrow circumstances, like child pornography, certain links to copyrighted material, spam, malware, and results that contain sensitive personal information like credit card numbers,” said Whetstone, who last posted a blog on the company’s censorship rules and philosophy back in November, 2007.

David Needle is the West Coast bureau chief at InternetNews.com, the news service of Internet.com, the network for technology professionals.

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