Solving Google’s Censorship Problem Will Be a Trial

Someone must have been telling lies about Jordan Peterson, he knew he had done nothing wrong but, one morning, he was locked out of his Google accounts. He’d had those accounts for 15 years, which included a popular YouTube channel where he posted hundreds of videos and attracted more than 367,000 subscribers. But now he couldn’t access anything.    

For hours, the University of Toronto psychologist tried in vain to have his accounts reinstated. “After review, your account is not eligible to be reinstated due to a violation of our terms of service,” an email from Google stated unhelpfully. He had violated some principle—but what? “Please tell me what principle I have violated,” Peterson entreated as he tried to sort out the situation. “I have not violated any terms that I am aware of and have not misused my account.”

Peterson’s request was met with a series of cryptic digital messages that essentially said the matter was being handled and there was nothing more that he could do. After some time—with no specific reasons given—his accounts were reinstated as abruptly and mysteriously as they had been revoked.

Many of Peterson’s supporters, myself included, instinctively cried “censorship!” While it remains possible that Hanlon’s Razor could be applied in this case and that we shouldn’t ascribe malice to a situation that could be explained away by either user error or incompetence, the timing makes the whole situation suspicious.

Just the day before, Google had announced with great fanfare that it would crack down on terrorist activity on its networks by implementing more algorithmic, user- and committee-based-matrices to flag objectionable videos. Google also threw in—as if it were related—that it would also take a harder stance on speech and content that violates none of its guidelines, but is, nonetheless, somehow flagged by users and special interest groups as incendiary:

We’ll soon be applying tougher treatment to videos that aren’t illegal but have been flagged by users as potential violations of our policies on hate speech and violent extremism. If we find that these videos don’t violate our policies but contain controversial religious or supremacist content, they will be placed in a limited state. The videos will remain on YouTube behind an interstitial, won’t be recommended, won’t be monetized, and won’t have key features including comments, suggested videos, and likes…” (Emphasis added.)

Of course, they’d been doing that for a while. Late last year, the Prager University YouTube channel—an extremely successful channel with more than 130 million views, founded by conservative radio talk show host Dennis Prager to provide informational videos about American values—had some of its videos placed behind an “age appropriate” wall, limiting their reach and requiring a click-thru. Videos that were initially flagged as inappropriate included such NC-17 material as “Israel’s Legal Founding,” “Did Bush Lie About Iraq?”, “What ISIS Wants,” and “Why Did America Fight the Korean War.” Prager University tried working quietly behind the scenes with Google before going public with its frustrations. “In response to an official complaint . . . Google specialists defended their restriction of our videos, and said, ‘We don’t censor anyone,’ although they do ‘take into consideration what the intent of the video is’ and ‘what the focus of the video is.’”

Google Drops the Façade
I applaud Google. Not for the policy, but for the company’s burgeoning honesty and move towards ideological transparency. Google, like Twitter, Facebook, and Reddit, has been policing content for a while in one form or another. Now it’s official stated policy. Gone is the “We Do not Censor” façade. Google is now openly in the editorial business and all too happy to advertise its censorship—except don’t you dare call it censorship. I believe the preferred euphemism is “information curation.”

Even if content doesn’t strictly violate the company’s policies, if an employee or special interest group doesn’t like certain content or a particular point of view, it may be sent to a “naughty corner” and made as inaccessible as possible. Further, coordinated mass flagging, where bots or groups of people simultaneously flag videos can cause content to be limited as well. Edit or change the content to comply with an accepted point of view and it’s accessible to everyone again. Why Google (or Facebook or Twitter) doesn’t simply drop the pretense and refuse to publish articles and videos the company finds objectionable is anyone’s guess. At this point, the content discrimination question is one of degree, not a matter of principle.

But it’s not “real” censorship unless the government does it—right? The First Amendment proclaims loudly and clearly that freedom of speech, press, and assembly cannot be taken away by the state. Our government is bound by the Bill of Rights; a private corporation such as Google is not. No one is stopping Peterson from speaking, or Prager from making videos. And for the moment, Milo Yiannopoulos doesn’t risk prison for his outrageous tweets.

Yet these cases call into question the idea that only the state may play censor.

We live at a time when the vast majority of people freely turn over their private information to—and get most of their news and information from—a handful of very large corporations. What happens when those politically connected companies start censoring speech?

The concern isn’t new, but the solutions are elusive. Oddly enough, former Breitbart News chairman Steve Bannon and Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg both have argued that some digital services, such as search engines and social networks, should be treated and regulated as public utilities. If Google effectively has a monopoly on search traffic, and Facebook (and possibly Twitter) dominant the social network world, and they have extensive entanglements with political power and government at every level, then it’s fair to wonder whether corporate censorship has First Amendment implications.

Rethinking Regulation
Google may not be an arm of the government, but when a company becomes so intertwined with government and political entities, it could be seen as acting as a surrogate without any of the usual legal or constitutional checks. Google—and companies like it—project a correct and acceptable ideological alignment with the political powers-that-be. They can effectively engage in political censorship without the constraint of that pesky Bill of Rights.

Unlike Jordan Peterson, who has a large enough following that allows him to effectively publicize and help resolve his problem with Google, most of us are at the mercy of the search giant and its notoriously ideological and taciturn bureaucracy. Imagine the disruption in your digital life if you were locked out of all your email, documents, and YouTube accounts with no way to reinstate them. Add to this, the possibility that purely political content might trigger such a lock-out and the effects on speech become apparent.

The answers to these issues are all thorny. Let’s be honest, the simple market based solution to “choose another search engine, social media or online video provider” is not really an option at this point. Google and Facebook are the only real players. Sure, Bing, DuckDuckGo, Ello, Vimeo, and other outlets exist, but few people actually consider them as true rivals to the services offered by Google, Facebook and Twitter. This, of course, makes resisting the siren’s call for regulation all the more difficult.

Ultimately, however, a regulatory schema for search engines,YouTube ratings and monetization, and public social network speech would be heavy handed at best and oppressive at worst. A top-down, online “Fairness Doctrine” is also out a bad idea. When were the federal “fairness” metrics ever fair? Instead, we should turn our attention to requiring that corporate entities, especially if they become large enough to render goods and services that are considered essential and indispensable to modern life, adhere to some of the the same basic standards of fairness and equality of opportunity we expect of our government. They are, after all, essentially the governing bodies of the online world—providing the infrastructure that we use and policing our behavior while in that world.

If we are to eventually address the issue legally, we should first reexamine it socially. A good starting point would be to reconsider our notions of online spaces and move from viewing the largest,most trafficked ones as private products to public forums and demanding that the corporations providing those adhere to spirit of first amendment.

For better or worse, the online world and experiences in that world are becoming as important to people as the real one. We buy our goods online, meet our spouses online, share thoughts, break up and find meaning online. We live online. A recent study revealed that teens don’t distinguish between online experiences and real world ones when it comes to social interaction. As the technology becomes more prevalent this trend will continue even more. We should thus take very seriously the idea that people today have digital lives and rethink what protections are necessary to allow those digital lives to continue with freedom and the pursuit of happiness with minimal disruptions, especially from either government or corporate intrusion and censorship.

element_content=””]

About Boris Zelkin

Russian-born Boris Zelkin is an Emmy Award-winning composer who has written the music to countless films, documentaries, television shows and major sporting events, including the Tucker Carlson show, Bill O'Reilly, "Gosnell," “FrackNation,” Citizen United’s “Rediscovering God in America II,” Roger Simon’s “Lies and Whispers,” the America's Cup, the Masters, the World Skating Championships, the U.S. Open, NASCAR, the Stanley Cup Championship, and the theme to ESPN’s NCAA championship coverage. Zelkin received his B.A. from Colgate University and earned his M.A. in religion from the University of Chicago Divinity School. He has written extensively on the culture for various online journals and was a major contributor to the recently released “Bond Forever,” a book about the James Bond franchise. He currently resides in Los Angeles but is always looking for a way out.

Want news updates?

Sign up for our newsletter to stay up to date.

13 responses to “Solving Google’s Censorship Problem Will Be a Trial”

  1. Stupid evil 1: You clicked on “I Agree” so assented to the 100 pages of abstruse legalese that made you a chattel slave of Google, but maybe the manditory binding Arbitration will say they can’t shackle you.

    2 . Bu you agreed to you indentured servitude, so if everything you’ve ever created goes poof, at the whim of Google, there is not tort, injustice or evil done. You were simply stupid.

    I’ve detached myself from google – I’d have done it earler except for the inconvenience.

    They insisted on PC “google plus” accounts for youtube for a month or so. And then deleted and locked out many creators.

    No I can speak freely. Let google delete everyting.

    Let those willing to put up with Stalin and Mao continue to use Google.

    • Any suggestions on good email alternative? and, how to export gmails to a ‘safe space’? Use it mostly for personal reference: house, insurance, NOT financial.
      I still maintain my original ISP email, from dial-up era, but it has so little storage that one .jpg could crash it.

      Online is truly the new Wild West.

      TY.

      • I use fastmail.com Unseen.is is also liked by some. Or you can get your own domain and email.
        There are “alternatives to gmail”. It depends on what you want it to do – how do you filter, spam protection, etc.

  2. Anyone that flags, ridicules, and reports Google spammers in comment sections, gets attacked by Google bots and banned also.
    I’ve noticed a new type of surveillance on comments here, that will remove and usually delete a comment that inserts a link to another web page at the end of the comment.
    Even if that link adds material and enhances the discussion of the subject matter.

    • “… Section 230 of the 1996 Communications Decency Act stipulates that “No provider or user of an interactive computer service shall be treated as the publisher or speaker of any information provided by another information content provider.”

      Section 230 was originally known as the Cox-Wyden Amendment—named after Chris Cox, a Republican congressman from California, and then Democratic representative, now Sen. Ron Wyden from Oregon.

      The language of Cox-Wyden that describes the policy of the United States—“to promote the continued development of the internet and other interactive computer services and other interactive media,” etc.—was appropriately optimistic about the future. However, it failed to imagine a future beyond the days of dial-up internet connections in which a mega-website like Facebook would eat all the media. …”

      http://www.tabletmag.com/jewish-news-and-politics/238195/zuckerberg-public-enemy-no-1/?print=1

      CG: I wanted to add this to Zelkin’s post, but thought it ok to test your observation.

      Actually, my concern with google is with their search algorithms, although the real problem might be in how different sites tag their content, or in how google algorithms ‘know’ which sites to search first for tags in comment threads, not just content.

      Now we need a countdown clock, to see how long it takes for Congress to re-visit Section 230 of the 1996 Communications Decency Act. Good way to unmask the gaggle of FB & G lobbyists.

      I wonder whose side Bezos is on.

      • I’ll reply before you are deleted by the American Greatness censor,but won’t post the link, but, there is a class action against Google on now.
        I was a Google client during the designated period.

      • I frequently post quotes with the URL, often at the end, and have never had one ‘disappeared’.

        The last two times one of my comments was replied to by the ‘ooglespam’, I blocked them, and have not had that problem since, despite my frequent mentions in my comments, about their algorithms being a form of search censorship.
        Brandon Weichert often upvotes me here – but you must be implying an external censor, targeting AG?

      • No; A.G. itself.
        The comment was initially sarcastic, then I later added a serious note at the end with a reference to another article that supported the authors theories.
        It was temporarily removed as spam, then deleted altogether.
        At another site where I took on all the Google spammers one by one by flagging and reporting every post, and making snide comments to them in return, I was banned; Banned, apparently, by user I.D. and I.P. address.
        I can still post comments under that same user name from a different IP address.
        For an in depth education on what Google can do to influence/deny searches, open a “Google Analytics” account for your website.
        And be prepared to spend a good bit of time researching their full spectrum of capabilities.

      • Chilling. I do not have my own website, and not, at this time, willing to go that far.
        That other site? BB? That is a weird place, for some of what you describe.
        Thanks.

  3. Thought-policing megacorporations like Google, Facebook and Amazon are more powerful than most governments. Plus they’re effectively part of the Deep State, Permanent Government, or Moldbug’s “The Cathedral” (or whatever you choose to call it) of the American Empire.

  4. While I have ran into these types of situations, for the most part they are not necessities in my life. You see I was born a long time ago and all of this stuff can be lived without. I learned a long time ago that the only power that I had in life was where I spent that little dab of money that the tax robbers allowed me to keep. So, I patronize only those places that treat me as I want to be treated.

  5. Perhaps it is time to make google the new my space! Surely there are enough creative web wise techies to start a more friendly atmosphere for the “right” side of life. The bigger they are the harder they fall! Can anyone say Sears, Kmart, Woolworth’s, etc….