Yesterday, Google Israel Director Meir Brand, at a conference sponsored by the Anti-Defamation League in Israel, rejected censoring anti-Semitic material from Google search results. As Brand noted, “At Google, we have a bias in favor of people’s right to free expression.”
In short, whatever content Israeli law permits, Google’s search will find. Such a policy is easy for Google to administer and avoids difficult decisions for the company. “Google is not and should not become the central arbiter of what does and does not appear on the Web,” Brand explained. In doing this, Google is sensibly imitating a public utility. Your local telecom provider, for example, is not responsible for any of the things you say on the phone—whether your words be merely ill-advised or downright illegal—so the giant search company cannot be liable for what you read on the net. All this is perfectly reasonable, and I can accept this argument as a general proposition.
I just have a hard time accepting it specifically from Google. After all, just this April this same company successfully urged shareholders to reject a proposal that would have prohibited the search engine from engaging proactively in censorship. And don’t get me started about China, where Google management risked its do-no-evil reputation last year to establish a site—www.google.cn—that gives new meaning to the concept of self-censorship. Try Googling “Tiananmen” or “Tibet” on the Chinese and American versions of the search engine, and see what I mean. Read this and this.
In my more reflective moments I can sympathize with Google management as it deals with conflicting considerations. Obviously, it would be best if the search engine filters no content on behalf of anybody. Yet the company is in fact controlling content today. So if Google censors at the behest of the Communist Party of China, why should it not self-censor for the Anti-Defamation League?