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Online censorship, in any form, can be a dangerous thing. As some politicians may put it, this is simply a ‘known known’. In the past though, Google has been complicit in allowing state intervention in their results, particularly in China.
Whilst they eventually took action in 2010, there is a risk of a ‘pot calling the kettle black’ situation arising whenever this particular discussion is broached – which Sergey Brin chose to do in the Guardian yesterday.
As a gateway to information, Google, along with a select few others, has a responsibility to ensure that the results returned are free from censorship and state-led intervention wherever possible. Understandably, this isn’t always easy. But in criticising Facebook for ‘stifling innovation’ and not allowing search engine crawlers, they have opened up a whole new debate about the future of search and censorship.
So what’s Brin’s beef then? Well, the walled garden approach to software employed by the likes of Facebook and Apple appear to rankle with Google. Both like to dictate what users can and can’t access through their products, which is restrictive for consumers. Equally, Facebook have made it impossible for search engines to crawl data, ensuring that a wealth of data has restricted visibility. Whilst users may be happy that their details aren’t being shared, this isn’t necessarily a positive move for a ‘free Internet’.
Walled Gardens and Censorship
Rightly or wrongly, Brin suggested that Google would not be able to develop within the current climate if it were just starting out today. This is simply because data is being gobbled up by the social networks and not being shared with crawlers, making it difficult to index content.
However, the biggest threat posed to search engines and the Internet in general isn’t necessarily from companies hoarding their own data, but from governments imposing legislation on what is accessible and what isn’t. This isn’t simply an issue in countries where totalitarian regimes want to limit the visibility of ‘dangerous’ material, taking North Korea, Iran and Syria as good examples. It has also been discussed here in the UK and, even more earnestly in the United States with the SOPA and PIPA bills (which have now been shelved).
Fighting Restrictive Legislation
Search engines are designed to reflect all of the information that they have at their disposal, not to pick and choose what users can see. Whilst sites can be punished for contravening certain rules and others may be artificially inflated due to algorithm anomalies, generally it is an automated assortment of data – free from restrictions. So whether you’re looking for pirate material, fake goods, gambling sites, pornography or anything else that may be deemed illicit or even illegal, the results should reflect this.
Google are certainly no angels. They have sparked more privacy rows than any other company and have just as many lawsuits and injunctions outstanding. In fact they have just been fined $25k by the FCC for taking data from unprotected wi-fi networks from Street View cars. So perhaps this is just another case where people in glass houses shouldn’t throw stones.
Facebook have their own privacy concerns, and without indexable content, they may struggle to fulfil search queries as effectively as they might hope. So whether they are helping or hindering a free Internet is certainly up for debate. However, this is an argument that is likely to rumble on. Sergey Brin doesn’t often speak out on issues, but in this case he’s dealt out a number of blows that may ruffle a few feathers.
It’s a story that will rumble on, but if you have any views on the open Internet, censorship or on anything else that Sergey Brin discussed, then please add them in the comments section below.