Tuesday, August 23, 2005

THE TYRANNY OF CROWDS In Silicon Valley, Google is now viewed more as a threat than as an innovative underdog--that's the upshot of Gary Rivlin's piece in today's Times.

But the article never mentions a recent development that reinforces the idea that Google deserves to be feared rather than cheered.

Namely: Last week, in a stunningly tone-deaf move, Google subsidiary Blogger--the platform used by many blogs, including CONTRAPOSITIVE--added a flagging button to most of its web pages. The button provides blog readers a user-friendly mechanism to notify the company when "objectionable content" has been encountered:

Have you ever found yourself clicking the Next Blog button over and over again only to come across a blog that wasn't exactly to your taste? Maybe it was politically incorrect, potential hurtful, or just plain gross? Well, one person's vulgarity is another's poetry. Or something like that. When it comes to judging which is which, things can get a little tricky.

That is why we have launched a new feature on the Blogger Navbar called Flag As Objectionable. This feature allows the blogging community as a whole to identify content they deem objectionable. Have you read THE WISDOM OF CROWDS? It's sort of like that.
(For complicated reasons not worth going into, the "Flag?" button doesn't appear on CONTRAPOSITIVE. But you can see it here and on most Blogger blogs.)

Elsewhere, Blogger clarifies:

The Flag button is not censorship and it cannot be manipulated by angry mobs. Political dissent? Incendiary opinions? Just plain crazy? Bring it on...

We generally do not review the content posted through our service but our responsibility extends beyond Blogger users to casual readers of Blog*Spot.

The "Flag?" button is a means by which readers of Blog*Spot can help inform us about potentially questionable content, so we can prevent others from encountering such material by setting particular blogs as "unlisted." This means the blog won't be promoted on Blogger.com but will still be available on the web.


We track the number of times a blog has been flagged as objectionable and use this information to determine what action is needed...

When the community has voted and hate speech is identified on Blog*Spot, Google may exercise its right to place a Content Warning page in front of the blog and set it to "unlisted."
The development has received scarcely any press so far (at least according to Google-owned Google News) and the few mentions it has received were written in praise of the anti-spam aspect of the new program.

But clearly, we're dealing with a slippery slope here: On the one hand, Google informs us that the new flagging mechanism has nothing to do with censorship. But at the same time, without defining the term "hate speech" the company tells us:

When the community has voted and hate speech is identified on Blog*Spot, Google may exercise its right to place a Content Warning page in front of the blog.
I concede: I'm not even sure what a "Content Warning page" is. But for a company with a core mission of making information accessible and useful, Google has done frighteningly little, thus far, to explain what safeguards are in place to prevent blogs from being delisted simply because large numbers of people find their content distasteful.

And that's troubling.

It's troubling because when it comes to assessing the admissibility of speech and creative expression, bringing popular will into the equation is exactly the wrong approach.

Look: I'm all for taking advantage of group dynamics and open-source solutions in any number of arenas--particularly on the internet.

But, simply put, the limits of public discourse shouldn't be defined through a popularity contest.

And I'd hope that a company at the center of worldwide information aggregation and dissemination would be sensitive to even the appearance of doing that.

That said, don't get me wrong: Delisting blogs from Blogger.com isn't, substantively, that big a deal. The company isn't de-activating these blogs, or--just as destructive--removing them from Google search results.

But it's hard to see what principle stands between this recent step and an expansion of the new program into something broader:

Find a website with objectionable content? Use the Google toolbar to flag it. If enough people agree, the site gets excluded from Google search results and effectively flushed down the memory hole.

Run a newspaper that takes questionable editorial stances? You may find yourself excluded from Google News and effectively shut out of the public discussion.
We're not there yet--not nearly. But it would be encouraging to hear Google explain at much greater length why the flagging feature doesn't start us down that road.

CONTRAPOSITIVE is edited by Dan Aibel. Dan's a playwright. He lives in New York City.