Sorry Brin, But Google’s The Main Actor Standing In The Way Of A Free And Open Web

“… And just like that Brin stepped up and proved to the world that he has absolutely no idea what he’s talking about.” It was the first thought that entered into my brain after reading a Guardian article that outlined Sergey Brin’s thoughts about web freedom, in which he singles out Apple and Facebook as being the single biggest threat to the Internet.

From The Guardian:

[quote]He said he was most concerned by the efforts of countries such as China, Saudi Arabia and Iran to censor and restrict use of the internet, but warned that the rise of Facebook and Apple, which have their own proprietary platforms and control access to their users, risked stifling innovation and balkanising the web.[/quote]

It didn’t take long before my brain was spouting out evidence to the contrary. Evidence that, much to Brin’s chagrin I’m sure, would put Google front and center in the war against an open web. Let’s start with some simple examples of just how terrible Google is at a fair and open web. Five minutes of fact checking online turned up five examples of Google abusing its power and doing things in direct contrast to a free and open web.

Google Discriminates Against New Websites In Favor Of Old Sites

It may not be the glass slipper, but the fact that Google even remotely plays favorites with content on the Internet is a pretty large slap in the face to anyone paying attention while reading the Guardian article.  Google’s PageRank system is supposed to help separate the wheat from the chaff, but in reality, it’s placing a priority on some content over others. It may make sense in Google’s attempt to help put better articles in front of readers, but the unintended results stand in direct contrast to the philosophy of a  free and open web that Brin likes to talk about these days. I’m not sure about you, but someone or some algorithm determining what content is better than others, based on arbitrary and irrelevant information like the lifetime of a website, stands in direct contrast to the definition of free. A free web from giving certain websites weight over others, but that’s not how Google works. Google found itself in hot water over page rank back in 2002:

From an AlterNet article back in 2002:

[quote]Google’s no good. Brandt believes that the search engine is unfair, and it doesn’t — as many people think — return the best search results. Brandt runs google-watch.org, a new site that he hopes will act as “point of reference for privacy advocates, journalists and bloggers” who want to know the truth about Google … What is the truth according to Brandt? Google’s PageRank algorithm, the celebrated system by which Google orders search results, is not, as Google says, “uniquely democratic” — it’s “uniquely tyrannical.” PageRank is the “opposite of affirmative action,” he has written, meaning that the system discriminates against new Web sites and favors established sites. [/quote]

A few weeks back we broke the news that an ex-Apple employee claimed that the current Apple TV UI was tossed out by Steve Jobs years ago. It was pretty big news. Guess who got the love on Google News? PC Magazine, CNet, and AppleInsider. All of those publications linked to us as a source of the story. All of those stories were glorified re-writes of our original post. Yet Google sent them traffic, and not us. PageRank and preferential treatment in search results is a huge reason why that happened.

Here’s the Google News listing for that story. Check out how far down the page we are listed.

Google Favors Its Own Content Over Others

This one is a little more obvious. Head over to Google and do a search for something. Heck, search for “moving boxes.” That’s a pretty generic search that someone who was moving would search for. Look around the page. How many Google products do you see listed above the first actual search results? I see three Google advertisements above all the site listings in the main content box, then down the sidebar I see Google Maps and more ads. Again, preferential treatment for all things Google. Hell, I don’t even blame them. It’s their website and their service. Do what you want with it. Just don’t feed me a line about the competition being in the way of a free and open Internet when you’re shoving your products down my throat every time I do a search. If I go and buy an ad for “moving boxes,” I immediately jump above all the other listings. Long story short, pay Google and get a top listing spot. Can someone remind me how this is a free and open company again?

Heck, this got so bad that Google was called in front of the Senate and asked if they cooked the books.

Google Make Sites Mysteriously Disappear

Back in 2006 Google faced a lawsuit from a web startup that was looking for direct compensation from the search giant for downgrading its sites ranking, despite never getting in contact with the company. One day everything was fine and dandy and the next, KinderStart found itself buried deeply in the search results. This type of thing isn’t unheard of, and it’s actually quite common among website publishers.  We’ve even seen our rankings rise and fall over the years.  We’re less concerned with our rankings, and more concerned that a company that claims to be the last bastion of an open Internet is tweaking, changing, and making value judgements on what content is good and which is bad. Which sites get high page rankings, and which get buried into the seven depths of Internet hell — pages two through forty of a Google search. In the case of KinderStart, Google’s process of discriminating against its content wasn’t all that open. No one let the business know they were being penalized; instead, Google buried the service. Given Google’s marketshare, Google pretty much has the power to lift up or bury websites.

The antithesis to this whole argument is that Google is simply attempting to eliminate poor results from their customers’ searches, but there’s an inherent problem with that task: Google is determining what is and what isn’t acceptable on the Internet today. Some will inevitably argue that actively participating in the ranking system is a necessary evil, while others would state that Google’s influence over the Internet on the whole is advantageous to a free and open Internet. In my opinion, the moment someone or some computer makes a value judgment on what will and won’t be included in a search listing, the service is no longer free and open; instead, it’s curated and controlled. That’s a problem.

Google Censors Search Results If You Have The Money To Pay A Lawyer For A DMCA Takedown

By this point, you might think we are flogging a dead horse, where the horse is Google’s continued censorship of the Internet. You’d be dead wrong. As it turns out, customers can pay money to have competition and negative commentary removed from Google. All you have to do is hire a good lawyer and file a DMCA takedown notice. That’s exactly what the Church of Scientology did in 2002, and Google caved quickly and removed the offending sites from its listings.

From F.A.C.T.n.e.t:

[quote]Andreas Heldal-Lund, webmaster of http://www.xenu.net/ , got a DMCA [Digital Millenium Copyright Act] notification letter from Google earlier today. In the letter, a long list of URLs were listed as infringing, and Google apparently complied with the DMCA request by removing them.[/quote]

The only problem was that the website mentioned Scientology. The result, Google took down and delisted a lot of the site’s content. We’re not lawyers, so we’re not exactly sure how Google could have been held responsible for listing content on another website, but delisting the site is exactly what they did. I’m not one for “hate speech,” but in a land that flaunts First Ammendment rights any chance it gets, it’s a little surprising that a company would pull down a site’s listing based on a DMCA request. You can see a list of links here: http://mcgsm.co/HSiHM9. Again, not exactly the most free and open Internet on the planet, unless Brin means free and open unless it conflicts with Google’s corporate interests.

Sadly, this story doesn’t end there either. Google also closed down an adsense account for a website that was openly critical of Scientology, taking with it all of its earned revenue. Again, a stark contrast to the free and open Internet that Brin seems to be championing these days to news agencies the world over.

Google Willfully Helped China Censor Dissident Opinion And Historical Facts

Here’s the kicker: Until they found themselves under tremendous public pressure, Google was filtering results for Google.cn to remove any references to Tiananmen Square, and anything related to Tibet, Taiwan, and the Falun Gong movement. This is by far the biggest and most troubling of all the injustices against a free and open Internet, especially if we consider that among Brin’s tirade against Apple and Facebook today, he also included increased government control of communication tools as a main problem.  Yup, Sergey Brin not only publicly called out governments for meddling in the Internet, but his company also played a large role in creating and maintaining the Great Firewall of China by filtering historical fact in search results. It doesn’t end in China either. Governments from around the world petitioned Google 27,625 times in 2010 for information on its users. The US alone was responsible for 30 percent of the requests.  If Google was willing to pay such a cooperative role in stymieing dissident opinion on China, how do we know it’s not going to happen again somewhere else, and more importantly at home?  Teachers tell us to learn from history, and here we are, smack-dab in the middle of the censorship argument again.

Final Thoughts

Google’s definition of a free and open web starts where they can begin collecting your information, and ends right when they can sell that information to advertisers. It’s the only thing that matters to the company, and like we pointed out above, a free and open web is at the bottom of the company’s priority list. It’s comical that the two companies that Sergey Brin point out as glowing examples of problems with the web, Apple and Facebook, are the two companies that don’t pander to Google and give consumer information to the search giant. Neither Facebook nor Apple are glowing endorsements of an open web — far from it actually — but they’re also very far from the root cause of the problem. History shows us exactly where these companies stand on a free and open web, much like it does with Google in this case. The root cause of the free and open problem on the web is mainly caused by the company responsible for aggregating content from around the Internet, reorganizing it, and then displaying it to the masses. Google, despite Reddit’s claims, is actually the front page of the Internet. Any problem with a free and open Internet begins and ends on their homepage. Clearly, Brin doesn’t own a mirror, because if he did, he wouldn’t like what he sees.

Ironically, most of this information was found with a simple Google News search.  Maybe someone should teach Brin how to use the tools that his company builds.

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