Google as Self-Appointed Internet Censor
Earlier this year my main professional website was hacked by someone in India and then blacklisted by Google. A dozen lines of code had been inserted into my site which served a narrow purpose: to redirect people to a malicious site in India who had reached my website through Google or other search engines.
And that's all the code did.
In other words, once we finally identified the problem, the code itself confirmed what we had already concluded through trial and error: that no one visiting any of my websites directly or simply downloading material from my main website--more than 85 percent of my traffic--was ever in danger. But Google had blocked thousands of people from reaching me who were not using its search engine. In other words, yes, my main website had been hacked, but Google's bot had dealt with the hack in a simplistic way, driving people away from multiple websites I owned even though they were safe.
But how, we wondered, could Google be turning people away from my sites who weren't using its search engine? The answer is disturbing.
You know those innocuous little Google boxes in the upper-right corner of your Internet browser? Those now come built-in on many browsers--on hundreds of millions of computers. And when Google is built into your browser, before you access a website, your browser checks to see if that website is on Google's blacklist. If so, you are blocked, even if that website is safe.
In effect, Google, Inc. is looking over your shoulder as you type. You can defeat the block by changing your security settings, but most people won't do so either because they don't know how or because they assume the warning is valid.
So Google can not only track your activity when you're not using its search engine, it can also restrict that activity through blacklisting, thus serving as a censor for Internet content. In my own case, Google blocked my content unnecessarily for ten days for the vast majority of people who tried to access it. Google was correct in discouraging people from trying to link to my main website through its search engine, but it erred in adding more than a dozen of my URLs to its blacklist, because direct access to those sites never put users in danger.
If a company like Procter & Gamble or Johnson & Johnson mistakenly blacklisted a large number of your websites, you would be guaranteed an apologetic letter from a customer service representative, perhaps enclosing a coupon for free diapers. But Google remains silent. It doesn't even have a customer service department. You may have wondered why the company has that name. My suggestion: "Google" is the numerical value of Larry Page's arrogance.
And if you're thinking that Google's blacklist is probably small and inconsequential, think again. At any one time, there are about 800,000 URLs on the list, with more than 6,000 added every day. In July 2011, Google blocked an entire subdomain--co.cc--an action that effectively shut down more than 11 million URLs.
Most major browsers now accept Google's blacklist as gospel, even though experts are well aware that the list is flawed. For example, a 2012 analysis by security firm Zscaler found that when a legitimate website is infected in a way that forwards users to a malicious website, Google typically blocks the legitimate site rather than the malicious one, a practice that makes little sense.
In any case, who made Google the guardian of the Internet? Who gave Google the authority to block websites, which sometimes means cutting off people's livelihoods?
No one. No website owners. No government agencies. Google, in its arrogance, just does it, and sometimes it does it improperly.
The Gateway to All Information
In the early 1990s, I directed the Loebner Prize Competition in Artificial Intelligence--the search for the first computer that can fool people into thinking it's a person. One of our entrants was a junior professor named Michael Mauldin, known as "Fuzzy" to his friends. One day on the phone Mauldin surprised me with the following news: "Yesterday I was a poorly-paid assistant professor. Today, I'm a millionaire." His financial status changed suddenly because a pet programming project of his--Lycos, one of the first Internet search engines--had just been sold to a startup company.
Although a game-changer for Mauldin, this was not a landmark event in the world at large. In those days, barely a thousand public websites existed, so search engines weren't particularly helpful in solving everyday problems. Information was still obtained mainly from original sources or sources close to them: from experts, libraries, archives, books, newspapers, and so on. Information gathering was an art--a slow, awkward, and somewhat haphazard process, as it had been for hundreds if not thousands of years.
Yes, early Internet investors saw potential value in Lycos and other search engines, but no one envisioned what began to happen just a decade ago: namely, that the search engine--with Google quickly emerging as the best of the lot--would become the primary gateway to virtually all information. Nor did people envision the existence of hundreds of millions of websites serving as interfaces to virtually all business and organizations on the planet. The search engine became the gateway to those as well.
The search engine has become the primary vehicle--and often the only vehicle--people use both to obtain information and to access products and services, and the executives who control the search engines now determine (a) what information people will see or not see, (b) which websites people will reach or not reach, and (c) the order in which the information will be presented.
Too Much Power in Too Few Hands
And who is controlling the people who control the search engines?
No one. Google, which handles two-thirds of all Internet searches, is a private company in which key policy decisions are made by just one person--its CEO, Larry Page. We can guess why he makes certain decisions--market share issues, personal values, political leanings, whims, a bad mood--but we can't know for sure, because he has no obligation to tell us. And because he's not an elected official, we can't vote him out of office. We just have to trust that he has our best interests in mind, even though, legally, his first obligation is to his shareholders.
We also have no impact on Google's other 56,000 employees, some of whom--such as Marius Milner, the engineer who equipped the Street View teams with the code that collected private information from millions of people in 30 countries--have the password authority to blacklist your business, push you to the hundredth page of the search queue, or delete you entirely from Google's database.
Speaking of which, you might recall that in January 2012, my scholarly work was mentioned on more than 450,000 Google pages. Sometime this spring, however, that number dropped to just over 40,000. Was this because of a sweeping change Google made in its search algorithm or because Larry or Marius or someone else at Google was irritated by my public criticism of the company? There's no way to know. Remember, Google doesn't even have phone support.
And, yes, Google really does--without anyone's approval except perhaps Page's--sometimes make dramatic changes in its search algorithms, thus helping or hurting millions of business and organizations that have no input into the process and no redress if they are harmed. In August 2012, for example--apparently giving in to pressure from the music and movie industries--Google announced that it was going to lower the search ranks of websites based on how many copyright violations had been reported for them.
How, exactly, will this new policy be implemented? Will it be done fairly, sparing websites, say, that don't profit from their copyright violations? And will the new policy be applied with equal vigor to every offender? I doubt it. In fact, here is a straightforward prediction that I'd bet money on: YouTube, which likely has more copyright violations than any other website on earth, will continue to enjoy top search rankings. Why? Because Google owns YouTube.
And now for the quiz.
Would it be unlawful for Google to give preferential treatment to its own websites in its search results? Nope.
Would it be unlawful for Google to alter its search algorithm in a way that helps or hurts businesses of a particular type--say, businesses accused of idealism, agnosticism, or the excessive use of plastic bags? Nope.
Would it be unlawful for Google to alter its search algorithm in a way that changes the rankings of one particular political party, news service, or type of news story? Nope.
Would it be unlawful for an individual Google employee to push his or her favorite business, political candidate, or rock band up or down in the search rankings? Nope.
Would it be unlawful for Google to completely eliminate a business or individual from its search engine? Nope.
Is it unlawful for Google to add websites to its worldwide blacklist without the permission of the owners of those websites, with or without cause? Nope.
Is it unlawful for Google to collect and organize vast volumes of information about you, your family, and your business and then to use that information to try to alter your behavior? Nope.
Is Google a threat to our civil liberties? Yep.
Robert Epstein is Senior Research Psychologist at the American Institute for Behavioral Research and Technology and the founder and Director Emeritus of the Cambridge Center for Behavioral Studies in Massachusetts. The former editor-in-chief of Psychology Today, he has published fifteen books, including a 2008 book on artificial intelligence called Parsing the Turing Test: Philosophical and Methodological Issues in the Quest for the Thinking Computer. You can view "United States of Google," a recently archived video discussion on this issue involving Dr. Epstein, Bianca Bosker (Senior Tech Editor at the Huffington Post), Pete Pachal (Tech Editor at Mashable.com), and others by visiting HuffPost Live here.
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