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Google wrestles with being a "good censor"

October 10 · Issue #224 · View online
The Interface
On Wednesday, an 85-page document leaked to Breitbart News. Titled “The Good Censor,” it’s a presentation that traces the evolution of content moderation on tech platforms to the present day. The document is more descriptive than it is prescriptive, aiming to capture the current debate rather than influence Google’s leadership directly. Still, in speaking frankly about Google’s role as a censor, the document — which you can read in its entirety here — could fuel new calls to rein in platforms’ power.
First, some context. The presentation was put together by something called Brand Studio, which describes itself as “Google’s internal think tank that uses creativity, media, and technology to create experiences that connect Google products to the people who use them.” It also has a team that develops programs for “crisis response and sustainability.” Generally speaking, Brand Studio talks to experts and puts together white papers and does various marketing stunts around them.
In other words, the presentation that leaked to Breitbart News is not a memo from the head of Google search, or the CEO of YouTube. Still, it’s worth taking look, primarily for the way it frames the debate around content moderation for companies like Google, Facebook, and Twitter.
The presentation is divided into five sections: describing the importance of free speech; outlining the dimensions of bad behavior and censorship online; examining how companies are responding; looking at the balance between free speech and censorship around the world; and finally, asking how people want Google to respond.
Everywhere the authors look, they find people “behaving badly,” to use their chosen expression. Individuals harass and abuse other users. Governments employ bots, troll farms, and hackers to wage influence campaigns. Tech companies promote fake news, underinvest in moderation, and profit from the spread of misinformation.
“Shares, likes, and clickbait headlines — monetized online conversations aren’t great news for rational debate,” the authors write. “And when tech firms have an eye on their shareholders as well as their free-speech and censorship values, the priorities can get a little muddled.” They add: “In responding to public pressure, tech firms haven’t managed the situation particularly well, either.”
What have tech companies mismanaged? According to the report: inconsistent application of content moderation guidelines; opaque explanations around their policies; underplaying the scope of the problem; slow response times; and a reactionary posture that can seem more attuned to public perception than addressing root-level problems.
So what should Google do about it?
“The answer is not to ‘find the right amount of censorship’ and stick to it,” the authors write. Instead: “Google might continue to shift with the times — changing its stance on how much or how little it censors (due to public, governmental, or commercial pressures). If it does, acknowledgement of what this shift in position means for users and or Google is essential. Shifting blindly or silently in one direction or another right incites users’ fury.”
Other recommendations from the report: remain neutral; “police tone instead of content”; clearly enforce policies; offer justifications for global policies around censorship; explain the underlying technology that the platforms run on; and do a better job talking about all of it.
The company’s official position on content moderation remains political neutrality, a spokeswoman told me in an email:
Google is committed to free expression — supporting the free flow of ideas is core to our mission. Where we have developed our own content policies, we enforce them in a politically neutral way. Giving preference to content of one political ideology over another would fundamentally conflict with our goal of providing services that work for everyone.
Of course, it’s impossible to read the report or Google’s statement without considering Project Dragonfly. According to Ryan Gallagher’s ongoing reporting at The Intercept, Google’s planned Chinese search engine will enable anything but the free flow of ideas. Even in an environment where American users are calling for tech platforms to limit users’ freedoms in exchange for more safety and security, many still recoil at the idea of a search engine that bans search terms in support of an authoritarian regime.
And that’s the unresolvable tension at the heart of this report. Almost all of us would agree that some restrictions on free speech are necessary. But few of us would agree on what those restrictions should be. Being a good censor — or at least, a more consistent censor — is within Google’s grasp. But being a politically neutral one is probably impossible.

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