I am often amazed with how Google reads my mind when I am typing, giving me numerous options from which to click. Apparently, though, some words do not produce instant results. "The Hacker publication 2600 decided to compile a list of words that are restricted by Google Instant." Although many of the words are not surprising (think off-color biological terms), some others might leave you thinking really, this made it to the list (ex. the word butt), but others might educate you on topics (off-color) that you had no consideration or imagination for. Giggles aside, and yes I did some giggling when I reviewed the list, there is a bit of danger in the idea of a search engine censoring terms. Based on whose morals, based on whose values and who makes the final censorship decision? These questions worry me.
There is good reason of course for Google’s censorship. Understandably, they do not want children or unsuspecting eyes to see off color or hateful things. I feel a little bit better when I think of it as a delay as opposed to a censor. I am not a parent but I am an internet consumer and I can wholeheartedly agree that I do not want a barrage of pop-ups or pictures to accost my computer when I am Google searching. Google delays the information so you can think twice if you actually want to see “I hate blacklisting”, or things like “lovemaking” or “_____ (fill in an ethnicity) are idiots” (these terms are all blacklisted). Nevertheless, even knowing that they have my best interests at heart and those of future generations does not halt the nagging feeling that there is an opportunity for misuse here.
To allay my fears, I glommed onto one particular statement in the article: “obviously, all you have to do is hit return to get the results like you always could. However, even when your request is not blacklisted, you are not getting the SAME results that you would get by hitting return. Entering "murder" into the search bar and hitting a space gets you suggestions of mostly band names. It's only after you hit return that you can learn the other sinister meaning of the word.” Therefore, what you are saying is the information is still there but I have to do a bit more to get to it? That is not too bad, but I worry that Google has the capacity to censor and is casually using the capacity to censor. Just having the technology to censor and actively using it in free societies around the world may invite misuse by those that do not protect those rights. According to Samuel Axon, the author of the article “What we have here is a demonstration of how content can be filtered, controlled, and ultimately suppressed.”
In a Google world it might be possible that a, so-called, dissident may find their name on a country specific blacklist. It might be plausible that those who are not technologically perceptive or who do not know how to get around digital government oppression may not know of the work of dissidents/freedom fighters who operate on their behalf. For some, in fact, those freedom fighters might not ever exist, even if one depresses enter after typing their name in Google. I find the prospect of government led, and Google supported erasure of sensitive material or dissenting opinion a tad disturbing.
A lecture I attended earlier this year included a talk by a dissident who shared strategies for circumnavigating the censors and blocks imposed by her country. I believe she said something like “you always have to be one step ahead.” One-step ahead of whom though? My question is, in the fight for freedom, which side should Google be on, should Google be in the business of growing censorship?
*title drawn from 2600 article
Photo Credit: Flickr user Alain Bachellier