The Internet’s watershed political moment in the U.S. arrived this week. You can Google it. The role of Google itself, however, in the so-called Web blackout is more interesting than a quick Google search would indicate.
First, some background. On Jan. 18, to protest a pair of anti-piracy bills in Congress, Wikipedia posted a blackout page on its English-language site that was seen by more than 162 million people. Google, meanwhile, gathered 7 million signatures against the bills. These tactics worked, at least temporarily: At the beginning of the great day of Internet wrath, there were 80 members of Congress who supported the legislation and 31 opponents. Afterward, those numbers were 63 and 122, and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid had announced he was postponing this week’s scheduled vote on the issue.
Google’s statesmanlike Chairman Eric Schmidt has led the rhetorical charge against the two bills, the Stop Online Piracy Act in the House and the Protect IP Act in the Senate. In November, he called the bills “draconian” and said that requiring Internet service providers to remove the URLs of suspected pirates from the Web amounted to “censorship.”
Actions Versus Words
On Jan. 18, however, Google didn’t disappear. Students with term papers to write may have had a tough time without Wikipedia, but all of us could get a blizzard of results from the familiar search giant. If actions speak louder than words, then what was the meaning of Google’s inaction?
Janus-like, Google has two faces: It is both a technology company -- providing a way to navigate to the glories and confusion of the Web -- and a media company -- producing content and making choices about what consumers will find useful. Those choices are based on extensive experience with consumers’ use of search results.
Google-as-search-engine relies on user-generated content (links, pages, reactions) to thrive. As an intermediary, Google doesn’t want to be conscripted as an automatic enforcer of other people’s copyrights. Thus Google’s objections to the piracy bills, which give broad immunity from liability to service providers that block other sites “dedicated to infringement.” This legislation would encourage them to remove links on the mere suspicion of illegal activity. As Schmidt’s remarks indicate, search censorship sets a dangerous precedent at a time when repressive regimes around the world target search engines to limit what their citizens can know. Google-as-search-engine has plenty of good reasons to oppose SOPA and PIPA.
But Google-as-speaker has enormous power to shape the boundaries of knowledge. This month Google visibly flexed these muscles when it introduced “Search, Plus Your World,” which presents search results to users of Google+ that include materials coming from people within the users’ “circles.” Twitter results weren’t included, and Twitter’s general counsel, Alex Macgillivray, himself a former Google employee, said that the introduction of this product marked a “bad day for the Internet” because Google’s search engine had been “warped.”
If Google had turned black on Jan. 18, its power would have become obvious to millions more people. Left without Google, and if ignorant about alternatives, consumers would have been up in arms. Result: backlash.
Here’s a thought experiment: A few decades ago, how would Americans have felt if one of the three major broadcast networks devoted an entire day of programming to a particular political advocacy campaign? Given the dominance of the few media outlets of the time, the initial shock of seeing a broadcaster display a political point of view would probably have been followed by anger -- and a push for greater regulation of all of the networks.
On Safer Ground
Google obviously didn’t want to trigger that kind of fear and knee-jerk political response. Nor did Google, as a public company, want to lose revenue by closing down. (Wikipedia, by contrast, is a volunteer enterprise.) So it stayed on safer ground, tinkering with its logo -- it was blacked out for the day, as if redacted from a classified document -- rather than disappearing its search results.
Google-as-publisher, after all, has content concerns of its own. What Google did was more akin to a network running a public service announcement to present its views without preempting anyone’s favorite soap opera.
This week, we met a new Google: Google-as-political-influencer. How you feel about Google’s role will depend on your categorization of the company. To irascible mogul and novice tweeter Rupert Murdoch, Google is a pirate: “Piracy leader is Google who streams movies free, sells advts around them. No wonder pouring millions into lobbying.” As a media company, Google would say it was adhering to its principles by putting users first and being transparent: It didn’t make it difficult for users to get work done, and the company made clear where the Google “editorial” began and ended.
Making an editorial comment openly is arguably an upgrade from the way media companies have historically sought to influence politics. An old-media company might have played backroom politics by threatening to run programming critical of a candidate. Christopher Dodd, the former senator and now chief executive of the Motion Picture Association of America, played the old-media political heavyweight this week when he said that Hollywood would be withholding money from Barack Obama’s campaign because of the White House’s views on the piracy bills.
Google isn’t perfect. But we should root for its attempt to balance its search-engine job with its media role, and encourage every company -- on the tech side, the content side, or in between -- to make clear what it’s up to when it engages in politics.
(Susan Crawford is a Bloomberg View columnist and a visiting professor at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government and Harvard Law School. In 2009, she was a special assistant to President Barack Obama for science, technology and innovation policy. The opinions expressed are her own.)
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