The internet’s watershed political moment in the US arrived
last week. You can Google it. The role of Google itself, however, in the
so-called web blackout is more interesting than a quick Google search would
First, some background. On Jan 18, to protest a pair of
anti-piracy bills in Congress, Wikipedia posted a blackout page on its
English-language site that was seen by more than 162 million people. Google,
meanwhile, gathered 7 million signatures against the bills. These tactics
worked, at least temporarily: At the beginning of the great day of internet
wrath, there were 80 members of Congress who supported the legislation and 31
opponents. Afterward, those numbers were 63 and 122, and Senate Majority Leader
Harry Reid had announced he was postponing this week’s scheduled vote on the
Google’s statesmanlike Chairman Eric Schmidt has led the
rhetorical charge against the two bills, the Stop Online Piracy Act in the
House and the Protect IP Act in the Senate. In November, he called the bills
“draconian” and said that requiring internet service providers to remove the
URLs of suspected pirates from the Web amounted to “censorship.”
On Jan. 18, however, Google didn’t disappear. Students with
term papers to write may have had a tough time without Wikipedia, but all of us
could get a blizzard of results from the familiar search giant. If actions
speak louder than words, then what was the meaning of Google’s inaction?
Janus-like, Google has two faces: It is both a technology
company - providing a way to navigate to the glories and confusion of the web -
and a media company, producing content
and making choices about what consumers will find useful. Those choices are
based on extensive experience with consumers’ use of search results.
Google-as-search-engine relies on user-generated content
(links, pages, reactions) to thrive. As an intermediary, Google doesn’t want to
be conscripted as an automatic enforcer of other people’s copyrights. Thus
Google’s objections to the piracy bills, which give broad immunity from
liability to service providers that block other sites “dedicated to infringement.”
This legislation would encourage them to remove links on the mere suspicion of
illegal activity. As Schmidt’s remarks indicate, search censorship sets a
dangerous precedent at a time when repressive regimes around the world target
search engines to limit what their citizens can know. Google-as-search-engine
has plenty of good reasons to oppose SOPA and PIPA.
But Google-as-speaker has enormous power to shape the
boundaries of knowledge. This month Google visibly flexed these muscles when it
introduced “Search, Plus Your World,” which presents search results to users of
Google+ that include materials coming from people within the users’ “circles.”
Twitter results weren’t included, and Twitter’s general counsel, Alex
Macgillivray, himself a former Google employee, said that the introduction of
this product marked a “bad day for the internet” because Google’s search engine
had been “warped.”
If Google had turned black on Jan. 18, its power would have
become obvious to millions more people. Left without Google, and if ignorant
about alternatives, consumers would have been up in arms. Result: backlash.
Here’s a thought experiment: A few decades ago, how would
Americans have felt if one of the three major broadcast networks devoted an
entire day of programming to a particular political advocacy campaign? Given
the dominance of the few media outlets of the time, the initial shock of seeing
a broadcaster display a political point of view would probably have been
followed by anger -- and a push for greater regulation of all of the networks.
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Google obviously didn’t want to trigger that kind of fear
and knee-jerk political response. Nor did Google, as a public company, want to
lose revenue by closing down. (Wikipedia, by contrast, is a volunteer
enterprise.) So it stayed on safer ground, tinkering with its logo - it was
blacked out for the day, as if redacted from a classified document - rather
than disappearing its search results.
Google-as-publisher, after all, has content concerns of its
own. What Google did was more akin to a network running a public service
announcement to present its views without preempting anyone’s favorite soap
This week, we met a new Google: Google-as-political-influencer.
How you feel about Google’s role will depend on your categorization of the
company. To irascible mogul and novice tweeter Rupert Murdoch, Google is a
pirate: “Piracy leader is Google who streams movies free, sells advts around
them. No wonder pouring millions into lobbying.” As a media company, Google
would say it was adhering to its principles by putting users first and being
transparent: It didn’t make it difficult for users to get work done, and the
company made clear where the Google “editorial” began and ended.
Making an editorial comment openly is arguably an upgrade
from the way media companies have historically sought to influence politics. An
old-media company might have played backroom politics by threatening to run
programming critical of a candidate. Christopher Dodd, the former senator and
now chief executive of the Motion Picture Association of America, played the
old-media political heavyweight this week when he said that Hollywood would be
withholding money from Barack Obama’s campaign because of the White House’s
views on the piracy bills.
Google isn’t perfect. But we should root for its attempt to
balance its search-engine job with its media role, and encourage every company
- on the tech side, the content side, or in between - to make clear what it’s
up to when it engages in politics.
(Susan Crawford is a
Bloomberg View columnist and a visiting professor at the Harvard Kennedy School
of Government and Harvard Law School. The opinions expressed are her own.)
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