Google has been criticized, derided, sued, and otherwise abused because of censorship in china, and in other counties, as well as censorship of media files and torrent files…
…in the primary index in the United States, and a host of other things that people have noticed, proved and otherwise shown where Google does censor material. Google is not the only one to face this issue, both Microsoft and Yahoo have had their watershed moments in this area, and have also been strongly criticized or supported for what they did, or what they felt they had to do.
The results of this kind of censorship (in that material is not fully represented in search engines) are still to be fully realized, however, search engine censorship opens the door to research and finding out what the impacts are. We get mixed messages from Google because on one hand they are lambasted for censorship, and then on the other hand, there are times that Google does not censor material, and in some stunningly amazing ways stands up and refuses to remove material that people have asked them to remove or refuses some forms of requests for data.
While this is a mixed message from Google, there is a reason for what they are doing, and it is driven by society, the societies that Google works within. Looking at the chilling effects web site, the amount of times that Google has been hit with various attempts by other corporations and individuals to restrict the flow of information, or keep information out of Google (read the lengthy list) is also something that needs to be addressed.
Not only does Google have to deal with multiple cease and desist or DMCA requests for take downs, but they also have to compete in countries with various forms of governments that have various forms of restriction on what data their citizens can have access to. Google then finds itself in a rock and a hard place trying to placate various groups with various agenda’s, various governmental forms with various rules on data access restrictions, all amounting to the idea that at some point, being the corporate citizen that they are, censorship becomes necessary to reduce liability, which if successfully prosecuted means Google goes out of business if the lawsuits are persistent and costly enough to dent the valuation of the company.
The debate then of if a company like Google (include Yahoo and MSN on this) has to uphold freedom of speech, and the various interpretations of what “free speech” is, and what it actually entails (even “free speech” is restricted in the USA, France, England, Germany, Australia, and a host of other democratic countries) really as a legal corporate entity, Google (and others) have to uphold the freedom of speech limitations that are found within the countries that it operates in. While we get used to the idea that anyone should uphold the idea of free speech, and free access to information, countries build solid boundaries over what is acceptable and not acceptable. Google then by censoring the results from its own index is attempting to meet both societal and legal requirements for what constitutes free speech in the domains that it runs in.
I am not a lawyer (IANAL), but many laws are based on what society deems good or bad at the time they are created. While we would all like to think that what Google finds on the internet will be represented in whole. Or that what we write about, create or otherwise put on the web would drive traffic to our sites, and our blogs, or news sites. It is not always the case, and there are people who will take things without attribution to the original writer, hence the problem. If we extend the idea of creativity and “we all of a sudden get copyright” over what we produce, and then others “steal” it or “plagiarize” it and we find out in Google, who do we hit? We will hit Google, and if the requestor shows due diligence that they tried and failed to get remediation out of Google, in my non lawyer ways, they are secondarily liable for infringement. If that is the case (in my non lawyer way of thinking), Google has deep pockets and makes a much more sue-able resource than the original web site or blog.
This tactic has been used by RIAA and MPAA to take out or down various file sharing tools and networks because they encourage infringement, or have infringing material on those networks, and claimed that they could not do anything about it. Free speech issues or legal uses of the technology aside, these tools were used to share copyrighted material, and non copyrighted material. With the well established tactic of infringement, liability, and inducement, precedence has been set for anyone with creative works on the internet to cry foul.
All one has to do is complain to Google that there is something infringing in the system, prove that it is infringing, and Google will have to remove it. There are at least hundreds of DMCA take down notices at Chilling effects for Google, each one of those represents censorship within the Google database because the data will disappear. There are at least hundreds of cease and desist orders on the list at Chilling Effects as well. While we may not be able to find something’s anymore in Google, it is obvious why those things are happening. People, corporations and governments are asking that access be removed or restricted.
Free speech then is fairly moot in this environment, being careful not to get sued because they have deep pockets; they have to be gun shy in favor of censorship. Reading a 90 day evaluation on this from chilling effects rings home the idea of censorship as practiced by companies aimed at Google. The work that Michael Davis-Wilson did was an interesting review of the takedown and DMCA notices that Google receives and finds over all:
“The takedown requests that Google receives show us a microcosm of the problems of abuse and overreach in the implementation of intellectual property law. Legal mechanisms intended to protect the owners of IP are often used to suppress competition and quash legitimate speech. When they are used against actual infringement, the remedies available are often excessive, and just as often fail to successfully stop infringement. Dozens of legitimate websites are taken down, and the true pirates keep coming back”. (Chilling Effects)
Over all then, while resented when known or discovered, Google practices censorship on multiple levels, driven by multiple legal requirements. While there are cases where there is an obvious abuse of the system, Google has to respond in one form or another or loose the legal protections that they do have, and be found secondarily liable. They may not induce infringement, but they provide access to infringing works, and the tactic has worked well for RIAA and others in the intellectual property protection field. If we find something on Google or any search engine and then can no longer find it, it would be valuable to ask why that work is missing.
Copyright owners have legitimate rights, that idea is not disputed. Everyone though has a differing idea of exactly what copyright is. That disparity in concept is what is driving part of the process of censorship within search engines at this time. Stepping back and taking a hard look at why something is missing, we have to think about it. As this issue impacts more people, and starts to impact the free flow of information coming out of the search engines, people often bypass restrictions that are thrown up. And that is when we need to stop and figure out what really is going on here. Censorship, in the end, might not be the search engines fault, it might be because someone handed over a take down notice, and the search engine had to comply with the notice, or be found liable later on down the road.