Banned Books Awareness: How Google’s Content Filters Amount to Censorship

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I had heard stories over the years of how Google was just another evil internet empire, but it wasn’t until diving into research concerning those claims in the wake of a personal situation between Google’s Policy Police and myself that I fully understood just how evil this company is.

For a full account of that situation, you can visit my blog for the scoop. I’ll focus here, appropriately, on the various censorship decisions that have been made by the world’s number one search engine. There was so much information uncovered that I could actually write an entire book on the subject, but I’ll whittle it down to some fundamental examples.

I never imagined that the content of the columns here at Banned Books Awareness would have resulted in a personal battle with one of the world’s most powerful internet properties, but that’s exactly what happened last week over policies regarding Google’s AdSense advertising program.

In a private email that I received from Kevin Ryall, the CEO of World Education Network, he explained that I might have noticed that the world.edu website has not been running Google AdSense advertisements since the beginning of the year (I hadn’t). The reason for this being that, without warning, Google blocked all ads in response to an educational article posted to the website by a University of Cambridge professor on the subject of women’s orgasms.

The article, being several months old, was removed from the server in an attempt to resolve the issue. Google replied that they would review the status of the website as a whole.

Then, Tuesday morning, a response came that started out by thanking Ryall for his patience in the matter but informed him that, upon review of the site, the policy team “…[is] a little concerned about some of the language used on your banned book section.” One of the specific examples they provided was from last week’s column regarding a copy of a 200-year-old sex manual- banned in the United Kingdom from about 1780 until 1961- that has gone up for public auction in Scotland.

Per the AdSense content policy, the program is not to be used on any websites that sell or promote “hate against any group, violence, or pornography,” (Read it. Some of the potential “violations” listed under the Content Guidelines might make you shake your head) but what makes this situation rather frustrating is that the email told Ryall to remove all ads from “any pages that include references to sex, sexuality, or the reproductive system.”

Now, as anyone who reads this column on a regular basis knows, one of the main reasons a book has been banned or challenged is because of sexual themes, but I digress…

Okay, I get it; Google doesn’t want its ad program being used on porn sites. Fair enough. But even the United States Supreme Court agrees that pornography is protected by the First Amendment’s Freedom of Expression clause. So right there I have an issue with Google’s policy; but now that extends to academic discourse about the human body as well. Really, Google?

This issue impacts not just myself, but every writer who posts content on a website that utilizes the AdSense program- regardless if it’s on world.edu or elsewhere. If a writer wants to get paid for their work, then they better watch what they say before the censors at Google shut down their revenue stream.

For the record, not only am I pleased to be part of the world.edu family of writers, but I also appreciate their decision to stand behind my body of work in response to Google.

I’m not the first to take issue with Google over this, nor will I be the last.

In August 2008, Google closed the AdSense account of a site that carried a negative view of Scientology (it closed a similar site 3 months prior). It wasn’t clear if the deletions were concerning any anti-religious content, but the cases did raise questions about Google’s AdSense terms of use.

In May 2011, Google cancelled an AdWord advertisement legally purchased by a Dublin sex worker rights group named “Turn Off the Blue Light” (TOBL), claiming that it represented an “egregious violation” of the policy by “selling adult sexual services.” The fact is that TOBL is a nonprofit campaign for sex worker rights and is not advertising or selling adult sexual services.

In July, after members protested outside Google’s European headquarters in Dublin and through a write-in campaign, Google relented, reviewed the group’s website, and found that its content advocated a political position, and restored the AdWord status.

In June 2012, Google did the same to an Australian political party’s website; reinstating status over a month later on the eve of an election, doing so only after it was reported in the media that the Party was considering suing Google. In September 13, 2012 the Party submitted formal complaints against Google with the US Department of Justice, accusing Google of “unlawful interference in the conduct of a state election with corrupt intent.”

Other common criticisms include the misuse and manipulation of search results, its compilation of data that may violate privacy, censorship of search results and content, and business practices that amount to antitrust, monopoly, and restraint of trade.

Google has been repeatedly criticized for various instances of censorship- most notably when it operated in China from January 2006 to March 2010, locking out entire websites from appearing in search results.

Google’s search results have also been manipulated to filter out content or webpages they don’t want you to see, using their AdSense terms of use as an excuse.

In February 2003, Google blocked the advertisements of Oceana, a non-profit organization protesting the Royal Caribbean cruise line’s sewage treatment practices. Google cited its right to do so under the previously-mentioned AdSense Content policy, stating “Google does not accept advertising if the ad or site advocates against other individuals, groups, or organizations.”

In April 2008, Google refused to run ads for a UK Christian group opposed to abortion, explaining that “Google policy does not permit the advertisement of websites that contain ‘abortion and religion-related content.’” The UK Christian group sued Google for discrimination and as a result, in September 2008, Google was forced to change its policy and anti-abortion ads began to run.

In Germany and France, a study reported that approximately 113 White Nationalist, Nazi, anti-Semitic, radical Islamic, and related websites had been removed from the German and French versions of Google.

As of January 26, 2011, Google’s Auto Complete feature no longer completes certain words such as “bittorrent”, “torrent”, or “utorrent,” and Google actively censors search terms or phrases that its algorithm considers unsafe, such as profanity and pornographic words; they are not, however, censored from the actual search results.

The latest example regards a subject that is very much in the social and political rhetoric as of late- guns. As of June 2012, Google’s Shopping policies were modified to prohibit the inclusion of “firearms” and firearm-related products, such as ammunition and accessory kits in search results.

Google software might be everywhere, Google Search might be lightening quick- hell, Googling has even become a verb in American English,- and many news articles, school reports, and research papers begin with the tools offered by the company, but the question everyone should want an answer to is, “For all the educational resources provided, what information is being kept from me?”

I know. Go Ask Jeeves.

 

For more information on the Banned Books Awareness and Reading for Knowledge project and the complete list of titles covered, please visit the official website at http://www.deepforestproductions.com/BBARK.html

Sources: Wikipedia, ZDNet, PC World, Washington Post
© 2013 R. Wolf Baldassarro/Deep Forest Productions

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