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Silicon Valley drops the ball on censorship once more

Yet another set of ill-considered censorship decisions by Silicon Valley has illustrated once more the impossible position it’s in when it comes to policing the public.

Google has announced it will now ‘elevate original reporting in search’. On one level this is totally laudable. Modern journalism has been severely corrupted by the wholesale shift in advertising spend from print to digital and thus put in the hands of the digital advertising platforms, of which the biggest is Google itself.

The move to digital has squeezed media margins, with advertisers looking for demonstrable ROI where once the circulation and brand of a publication was sufficient reassurance of ad money well spent. As a result the total number of journalists employed has dropped dramatically which, in combination with the explosion of digital publications, has meant each remaining hack has to produce much more content than previously.

Digital ad spend also directly rewards direct traffic in a way print never did, which means media are incentivised to publish a high volume of ‘click bait’ pieces, which are typically of a low standard and designed more to provoke than inform. Of all the companies in the world Google is easily the most directly culpable for this trend and now it’s belatedly trying to correct it.

“While we typically show the latest and most comprehensive version of a story in news results, we’ve made changes to our products globally to highlight articles that we identify as significant original reporting,” said Richard Gringras, head of Google News, in the announcement. “Such articles may stay in a highly visible position longer.”

There’s a lot to like about this. Prominence in Google news equals more clicks, which equals more revenue. If follows, therefore, that any tweaks to the algorithm that promote proper original reporting (which is much more expensive than opinion or re-reporting) are a step in the right direction. But Gringras himself acknowledged the complexity of the situation this puts Google in, in his next paragraph.

“There is no absolute definition of original reporting, nor is there an absolute standard for establishing how original a given article is,” said Gringras. “It can mean different things to different newsrooms and publishers at different times, so our efforts will constantly evolve as we work to understand the life cycle of a story.”

In other words Google decides what news is worthy of delivering to the public. Even if we assume those decisions will always be made in good faith and that the associated algorithms will somehow be furnished, in real time, with the most exhaustive context, this is still a lot power to be put in the hands of one commercial entity.

On top of that Gringras himself was the head of digital publisher Salon before moving to Google in 2011. Salon is widely recognised to be significantly biased in favour of perspectives and issues considered to be left wing and it’s reasonable to assume its long time boss is also that way inclined. How can we be sure his own political positions don’t influence the decision-making of his team? US President Donald Trump will doubtless be asking that very question before long.

What media spend that hasn’t shifted to Google has been mostly hoovered up by fellow Silicon Valley giant Facebook. As a social media platform it faces an even greater censorship challenge than Google (if you just focus on the search bit, not YouTube) and has been even less consistent and coherent in its approach, leaving it open to extensive accusations of bias.

Facebook’s latest attempt to clarify its censorship policies offers little clarity or reassurance to its users. Here are the new criteria, as copied from the official announcement.

  • Authenticity: We want to make sure the content people are seeing on Facebook is authentic. We believe that authenticity creates a better environment for sharing, and that’s why we don’t want people using Facebook to misrepresent who they are or what they’re doing.
  • Safety: We are committed to making Facebook a safe place. Expression that threatens people has the potential to intimidate, exclude or silence others and isn’t allowed on Facebook.
  • Privacy: We are committed to protecting personal privacy and information. Privacy gives people the freedom to be themselves, and to choose how and when to share on Facebook and to connect more easily.
  • Dignity: We believe that all people are equal in dignity and rights. We expect that people will respect the dignity of others and not harass or degrade others. 

While privacy seems relatively easy to determine and thus police, authenticity, safety and dignity are very subjective, ill-defined concepts. Facebook could arbitrarily determine almost anything to be inauthentic or undignified, so all this announcement really does is assert Facebook’s right to unilaterally censor its platform.

The Facebook announcement came just one day after reports of it censoring a piece of content published on the platform that challenged the claims made in another piece concerning abortion. This isn’t the place to examine the relative merits of the positions stated, but since abortion is one of the most polarising issues out there, and that balancing the rights of the mother and infant is a uniquely challenging ethical dilemma, for Facebook to apparently pick a side in this case has inevitably led to further accusations of bias.

Lastly even crowdfunding service Kickstarter is under pressure to censor projects on its platform. A comic titled ‘Always Punch Nazis’ was taken down after claims that it violated Kickstarter’s community guidelines. Slate reports that many Kickstarter employees objected to this decision, which resulted in it being reversed but also reports claims of recriminations against some prominent protesters. This in turn has led to moves to unionize among Kickstart staff.

Once more we see that it’s impossible for a digital platform to issue objective, watertight ‘community guidelines’ and that arbitrary censorship decisions will always be vulnerable to accusations of bias. The comic claimed to be satirical, which should offer at least some protection, but it still falls on someone to assess that claim and determine its validity.

Prior to the internet there were very few opportunities for regular punters to be published at all, let alone to a global audience. Social media especially has revolutionised the public dissemination of information and opinion, while concentrating the policing of it in the hands of a few democratically unaccountable companies. They will continue to try to perfect their censorship policies and they will continue to fail. This in turn will ensure growing pressure for regulatory intervention.


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