Google is big.  Google.com is the most visited website in the U.S., and it–along with a number of its affiliates such as YouTube and Gmail–regularly clock in as some of the most visited websites globally.  And with all that size comes controversy.  In the past month, on this blog alone, we’ve had two posts discussing Google: one highlighting its newly instituted company-wide privacy policy and another discussing its use of tracking cookies.  In the United Kingdom, Google is again under scrutiny for its approach to privacy, but whereas it typically catches flak for doing something that users or regulators dislike, Google is now facing criticism for refusing to preemptively censor search content.

Sitting at the forefront of this controversy is Max Mosley–a former barrister, amateur race car diver, and the immediate past-president of the FIA, which is essentially the global governing body for non-Nascar automobile racing.  In 2008, Mosley prevailed in a breach of privacy suit against the tabloid News of the World (incidentally, Mosley has been financing a number of the current phone hacking suits against the same paper) for the paper’s publishing stories and videos about an orgy in which Mosley was involved.  Although the News of the World video is supposed to be removed from the net, Mosley argues that both the video and images taken from it are readily available, and he wants Google to do something about it.  In particular, Mosley wants Google to create a front-end algorithm that filters out the forbidden content from search results.  Some Members of Parliament have sided with Mosley, saying that if individuals have court orders clearly indicating that material infringing on their privacy is not to be published, then they should not have to return to court repeatedly to have it removed.

For its part, Google has emphasized that its system allows for easy reporting and removal of individual offending websites from future search results but firmly indicated that it either cannot or as is more likely the case will not engage in preemptive censoring.    The internet giant has advanced two basic arguments.  First, that it is only indexing the infringing websites rather than hosting them.  Moreover, Google asserts that it is not its job to monitor the content of the internet, likening such a suggestion to requiring telephone companies to monitors conversations on their lines for illegal activity.

Beyond dredging up (and perhaps subsequently muffling) some juicy tidbits of British celebrity gossip, the resolution of this debate will touch on several key issues including censorship, the right to privacy, and a question of who is responsible for policing the internet.  Although Google has long taken a hands-off approach to search censorship, this issue coupled with a recent ruling from a Japanese court that the company must edit some of its auto-complete results could indicate a trend toward forcing Google’s hand in a new direction of censorship.  And for massive number of users for whom much of the internet is filtered through Google, such a change could likely undercut–at least to some degree–the freedom of information for which the internet is known.

- Hunter Branstetter

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5 Responses to Who are the Privacy Police? Google says “Not Us!”

  1. Niels Melius says:

    What’s amazing to me is that Google only gets fined $25,000 for privacy violations related to its street view data collection, but on the flip side the FTC seems to be going overboard trying to prove Google’s search algorithm is anti-competitive. It seems in the search industry, competition is just a click away, whereas Google’s data collection and privacy policies are much more concerning.

  2. Christina Santana says:

    Great post Hunter! I am very interested to see how far governments around the world will go in forcing Google to remove content they consider forbidden / unlawful. It is very worrisome to me that some Members of Parliament have sided with Mosley’s proposal of requiring Google to create and implement a front-end algorithm that filters out forbidden content from search results. The possibility of such implementation to lead to a marked increase in Internet censorship seems very real. Indeed, if Google fears penalties imposed by national governments, it may be incentivized to make such algorithm as inclusive as possible, which could lead to the inadvertent censorship of lawful cites. Hopefully cooler heads will prevail and come up with a sensible solution that balances privacy concerns with censorship concerns.

    • Hunter says:

      I agree that regulators are standing on the precipice of a slippery slope should they demand that Google develop a mechanism to censor specific search results. Still, I imagine that playing whack-a-mole with infringing websites is frustrating for someone who is trying to defend their reputation–especially for someone who has been slandered as opposed to someone like Moseley who is trying to keep aspects of his behavior private through very public mechanisms (which is not to say that we can blithely disregard notions of privacy).

      On the other hand, editing auto-complete results does not bother me. Since auto-complete can end up being a self-fulfilling prophecies (i.e. once a query is highly suggested in an auto-complete form, the likelihood of someone clicking on it increases, thereby further solidifying its position as a top suggested search), it seems like Google may be the only entity in a position to fix the problem. Further, just because Google doesn’t complete your query for you doesn’t mean that you can’t still run a search using the exact same terms.

  3. ADM says:

    Hunter – This is a really interesting problem. I feel both horrified that there is currently no way to take content off the internet and outraged that Google is being put in the middle of this. Though breach of privacy is a serious problem, I am not convinced that the burden should be on Google to alleviate this problem. Instead of asking a private company to assume a role in policing the internet, maybe the government could assume a greater role in going after individuals who post illegal content.

    • Hunter says:

      There are some instances where Google is definitely the least cost avoider and thus should probably address those issues–e.g. when the problematic page has been cached by Google or, like in the Japanese case, where the problem is Google’s autocomplete script. But in the main, I agree with you that placing a burden on Google to serve as a regulator is not a particularly appealing notion.

      Still, I’m not sure if more aggressive government policing is any better. As we saw with the whole SOPA/PIPA response (which admittedly was on a much bigger scale), the denizens of the internet don’t take too kindly to the idea of government stepping in to regulate the internet.