Google in the News

My silence indicates that it is getting easier and easier to avoid using Google in my own web-surfing life.  Yet there have been 2 news stories in the past few days that indicate others may not have it so easy.

1. The saga of Geert Wilders and his reportedly offensive film.  The story here can be briefly summarized: Dutch right-wing politician/filmmaker decides to make a movie called “Fitna” that argues the Koran is “fascist.” (What is the deal with these Northern European fanning the flames of hate?) Dutch TV stations (sensibly) refuse to show it; Wilders in turn decides to put it on the Web; at which point the company that hosts his website, Network Solutions, declares that his (still unseen) film violates their acceptable use policy, or something, and suspends his site.

There is, obviously, a lot to talk about here, including whether the norms of the
First Amendment apply to the rest of the world (or if they should);  if Network Solutions’s actions therefore are “censorship”; and how easy it would be for Wilders simply to get another website and/or move his domain to another hosting company. Most commentators seemed to get caught up in the first points, a sort of Danish cartoon rehash.  My own take was to recall the old saying (attributed to John Gilmore, founder of the EFF) that the “Net treats censorship as damage and routes around it.” Basic principles of distributed networks here–although the interesting part of the Wilders story is that it exposes the points of control in an allegedly uncontrolled (or uncontrollable for cyberlibertarians) network.  And Network Solutions turns out to be one point of control – a choke point, if you will.

All this is interesting enough; but a post by Jonathan Zittrain (Harvard and Oxford cyberlawyer extraordinare) to Dave Farber’s IP mailing list exposed another choke point: Google.

Zittrain’s main point was to show how NetSol (which had come under a lot of criticism from the American anti-censorship types) could be playing multiple roles here: name registrar, host of domain name registry, and/or website host for Wilders’ site.  NetSol thus has several opportunities to influence content on the Web.  But a throwaway line at the end of the post was, for me, most revealing:

“There are plenty of alternative places to host a site — but only one domain name that may have accrued Google karma, inbound links, etc.”

The point here is about “Google karma”–that all names are not the same, and that Google (or rather Google’s algorithms) decides who is worthy of attention and who is not. The same, of course, can be said for any search engine.  The key comes down to how they decide how to match search terms with what is “out there” on the Web.  The difficulty of this decision–from a purely qualitative standpoint–is something I can sympathize with.  Historians are supposedly “objective” interpreters of the past (this caricature is partially our own fault).  The reality is that we choose what to call “history” and we choose what to ignore.  Of course Google (and web search in general) is a different kettle of wax (or ball of fish, mix whatever metaphors you like)… and they are in the business of convincing surfers (and investors) that their quantitative search results are a good match for qualitative desires.  But the fact remains that they decide what people see–and for people like Wilders who just want some attention, these decisions take on heightened importance.

There is also the theory that this whole saga is an April Fools hoax. If only that
were true…

2. This morning I came across this totally weird heaadline: “Rich Parents Prefer Google, Are Better At Spotting Suspect Info.”
How can you not want to read a story with a headline like that?
An alternative headline might have read: “55% of the richest survey participants in a group of 120 people surveyed 4 years ago liked Google.”
I won’t get into some of my skepticism about research methodologies used to measure “skills divides”; and it’s unfortunate for everyone that data like these take 4 years (!?!) to analyze and publish. The study, of course, does not appear to ask (or answer) questions such as “why do they prefer Google?”  But–and I stress, this is according to the little news write-up I linked to above, and I have lazily and probably regrettably not read the full article in the Journal of Applied Developmental Psychology–they do come up with a sensational conclusion: governments should help educate their citizens.  Amen!

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One Response to “Google in the News”

  1. thanos Says:

    Thanks kindly for the linkback, and I am interested in how your experiment wraps up as well as your conclusions. In the interests of repaying the favor I’ve posted about your site at LGF, you might see a bit of traffic.

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