We've known for a long time that Google makes content decisions, but recent moves in the direction of censorship are going too far. Unfortunately, it's hard to imagine a regulatory backlash given Google's victims: websites that no mainstream politician will defend.
Eric Schmidt, the executive chairman of Google's parent company, Alphabet, told a conference on Nov 20 the company was working to engineer RT and Sputnik, the Russian propaganda channels, out of the Google News aggregator. “We don’t want to ban the sites,” Schmidt said. “That’s not how we operate. I am strongly not in favour of censorship. I am very strongly in favour of ranking. It’s what we do.”
Schmidt's words are a riff on an April post by Google vice-president of engineering Ben Gomes, who teased changes to how Google searches for news. New instructions targeted “deceptive webpages” that look like news but seek to “manipulate users” with conspiracy theories, hoaxes and inaccurate information. “We’ve adjusted our signals to help surface more authoritative pages and demote low-quality content,” Gomes wrote.
I'm not going to claim RT and Sputnik are real news media (in fact, I've argued they're not). But do I want Google to “engineer it out” of news searches or the Google News aggregation service? Absolutely not, and I want my fringe and alternative websites, too, regardless of their political colouring.
I am, of course, a media professional. I know these sites are frequently wrong, and wrong on purpose. I know they push conspiracy theories and propaganda. But the spin they put on the news is immensely illuminating to my work. Last year, US psychologist Robert Epstein published an article on Sputnik alleging Google's search suggestions were slanted toward candidate Hillary Clinton. In response, I wrote a column that voiced serious doubts about Epstein's evidence. That process – an important one in democracies – would've never played out had Google downgraded Sputnik and left me blind to the existence of Epstein's article.
Of course, it can be argued that the average news consumer shouldn't be fed the fakes and the spins because she lacks the time and the engagement necessary to filter through it all. But that's not really why Google censors the news through its ranking system.
Google is trying to minimise threats to its business, to avoid any kind of criticism that could lead to regulation. In the April post, Gomes referred to an incident from last December: Those asking Google “Did the Holocaust happen?” received a clear, embarrassing answer: no. Google wanted to make such situations less likely, Gomes wrote.
The same logic applies to its recent moves. Google decided to downgrade links to RT and Sputnik just as members of Congress investigate whether US technology platforms helped facilitate a Russian disinformation campaign during the presidential election. Until the possibility of regulation arose, the company was fine with those links, even though RT's and Sputnik's content was always as pungent as it is today.
The bottom line is that Google will downgrade any kind of content that can cause a backlash against it. That's important to understand even if you don't want to see alt-right, alt-left, pro-Russian, pro-Iran or any other biased “news stories.” What you do want can end up being censored, too, if Google's finely tuned corporate nose smells complications.
Sure, there are applications, such as Feedly, Nuzzel or Flipboard, that let you build your own news aggregator. But they're less convenient to use than Google News, which is attached to the Google function everyone uses – search. Google is a monopoly that regulators have mostly allowed to bundle various products with the main one. If that were not the case, competitors might arise that offer different degrees of filtering and different ranking models.
That would be bad for business and good for consumers, who are now stuck using Google's mainstream filter bubble. As someone who works in the mainstream media, I should probably welcome that – but I'd rather have fair competition for the inquisitive reader's mind, and for traffic. — Bloomberg