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article imageOp-Ed: Google the censor? The internet vs free speech?

By Paul Wallis     Oct 12, 2018 in Internet
Sydney - Google’s role as top dog comes with a few lead weights. One of the big issues is growing disquiet about the power of big platforms. A strange tale has unfolded after a leak of Google internal documents defining the big problems.
The leak story starts with an odd coincidence. Google’s The Good Censor” presentation was leaked to Breitbart, of all possible choices. The Good Censor is about Google’s ability to censor. Given Breitbart’s well-known even-handed management of issue coverage, what was the motive for leaking to them? Could it be that Breitbart was a likely flashpoint for reactive response? Or maybe the leak was simply sent to the most hostile possible company on Earth by sheer luck?
The Good Censor is now available for download on, with the reassuring stamp of Breitbart Exclusive on the document. Exclusive, eh? Not very. The start of the Good Censor lays out in slideshow form the basic issues. There’s even a belated, rather condescending, under the circumstances, nod to net neutrality. Terms like “anonymous conflict” aka trolling, and references to the impossibility to control free speech are sprinkled around.
The guts of this missive of marvels include some nasty issues:
• Algorithms to control free speech, meaning automatic censorship.
• Election hacking
• Platforms complicity in censorship in some countries
• Rise of the Alt Right (They sent this to Breitbart?)
• Nasty videos of suicides on social media
• Extremist content
• Children’s content compromised
The algorithms deserve a special mention. Algorithms are pre-programmed, formulaic responses to content, in this context. As a censorship tool, you could wipe the mere mention of a subject out of existence with a few subroutines. This is the machine version of Big Brother, Social Credit, whatever you want to call it. It’s the practical application of the most draconian censorship possible at the moment, and it can get a lot worse.
The problems, defined
Google’s review of these issues covers all the major problems, but it’s pretty obvious that a commitment has yet to be made beyond basic principles. Practical methods are thin on the ground, not that you’d expect them to telegraph their punches.
User behaviour is hardly avoidable as a subject. One of the more obvious issues is that people will try to get away with anything, given the opportunity. Bad behaviour on this basis is seen as a major impact on negative effects on the internet.
The other rogue sector discussed is government, including the interesting fact that only 25% of users reside in countries where free speech is even possible. (“How’s your civilization going, Mr. Flintstone?” “How would I know?”) This issue hardly needs explanation, but as a quantitative issue, it’s a good description of the thankless task of defending free speech where it simply doesn’t exist, or in some cases, can’t exist.
Political interference, like the US net neutrality issue which everyone failed miserably to understand, is one of the problems. The net result is that global internet freedoms have gone downhill, according to Google’s in-house euphemist, and that’s pretty much that.
Also according to Google, 448 million online comments posted by Chinese citizens were posted by the Chinese government. How’s that for a bot net? Paid commentators (took long enough to mention in the presentation) are also seen as a factor.
Tech companies, notably fake news breeders and platforms which aren’t managing fake news (all of them) despite thinking they are, are also the natural factor in generating garbage online. Neuroscience cows the now defunct and very toxic Cambridge Analytica didn’t get a mention, but they were also manipulators and enablers using big data sets to drive Facebook and other social media troll festivals during the 2016 US elections. “Tech” is now a sort of sexual prosthesis for politics, too.
What to do? They’re guessing.
Google observes that users are fighting back by “self censoring”, moving to other platforms and generally taking cover. As good a way as any of describing total revulsion, but the target ducking and dodging isn’t really fighting back. Governments are trying to deliver principles, rather than proven practices, at this stage to manage rights for users. Media regulation, and presumably Christmas, are also coming. Even more impressive, tech firms are doing some housekeeping.
Ignoring some slightly absurd comparisons between the American tradition of free speech and something called the European tradition of “dignity”, and tech companies upholding “civility” (since when?) the presentation wraps up with censorship as the working methodology, with quite a few qualifiers.
There are a few ideas, but overall Google has basically said “must do better”. One expression in the summation, “Be more empowering” can be taken in all its glory, given that people are basically powerless.
Managing madness?
What’s left out of the presentation is interesting, too. The sheer irrationality of many online train wrecks in bullying, baseless statements, and fake everything isn’t mentioned in the behavioural issues.
The bottom line here is that criminal activities like intimidation, breaches of privacy like doxing, paid propaganda, and a virtual encyclopaedia of other activities are going unchallenged. It’s no mystery why, either.
If you want to manage madness, you don’t have to be subtle. You can hit it, through mazes of proxy servers, fake accounts, whatever. Censorship is always the lesser option. It’s easy to send messages without encryption. A few words can mean “blow up Fred” or “bring down News Corp” or “toenail fungus for sale”, and you’ve got no hope of spotting it.
I haven’t read Breitbart on this subject; I don’t want to have to spend that sort of money on antihistamines. I’d still like to know why this leak was sent to them, and what was supposed to be achieved by doing so. I’d also like to know exactly what was supposed to be achieved by making this relatively innocuous document a leak option. The other side of management is spin, and who spins what on this very important subject will be interesting, if probably nauseating, to watch.
OK, that’s my 1000 words of sagacity on the subject. What people should realize is that all the problems above are right here, right now. Effective mass censorship and personal life controls are already up and running in China. A Western version is doable. It’s possible to censor you, personally, back to the Middle Ages now, not ten years from now. This is a functioning, operational form of mass social management, and it’s dangerous.
This opinion article was written by an independent writer. The opinions and views expressed herein are those of the author and are not necessarily intended to reflect those of
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