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Google censors independent comments sections while remaining protected itself

A blatant display of targeted, coordinated censorship has resulted in Google threatening two news sites with demonetization unless they delete specified comments sections.

The news was broken by Comcast-owned NBC, which reported “Google’s ban comes after the company was notified of research from the Center for Countering Digital Hate, a British nonprofit that combats online hate and misinformation.” What it failed to mention was that the person doing the notifying was the very same NBC journalist who wrote the story.

So, before we even get into the details of what The Federalist and Zero Hedge are alleged to have done wrong, we have a clear case of a journalist acting to create an event they can then claim an exclusive on. The ethics of doing such a thing are highly questionable by themselves, but a failure to report on NBC’s crucial role in the story amounts to an outright attempt to deceive its audience.

Having had the CCDH research flagged up to it, Google then apparently contacted the sites in question and confronted them over their comments sections. The original NBC story, which seems to have been heavily edited since publication, including the headline, gave the impression the issue was with certain stories themselves, something Google had subsequently contradicted. The above tweet from the NBC reporter also seems to differ from her original, with the removal of the hashtag #BlackLivesMatter.

Google has subsequently asserted that The Federalist was never demonetized because it took down the offending comments section as soon as it was confronted. In the Twitter thread below, the Google Communications account took time away from its day job of retweeting examples of corporate virtue-signalling to flag up Google’s policies, which presumably permit it to take action against any content it doesn’t like the look of.

While Google can’t be compelled to partner with anyone over its digital ad platform, its dominance of that sector, especially in the US, means there are few alternative ways of generating revenue for sites it chooses to cut off. In essence, thanks to its near monopoly in digital advertising, Google effectively has power of censorship over the entire commercial internet.

This has been the case for some time, resulting in an extensive antitrust investigation being launched in the US last year. If Google wanted to give that investigation extra evidence against it, it’s hard to imagine a better way than through the censorship of content it doesn’t like. On top of that, the company has previously been fined over its advertising dominance by the EU and was already in the crosshairs of US President Trump for its alleged bias against conservative political content.

Which brings us on to the research that brought this censorship about. The Center for Countering Digital Hate says it “seeks to disrupt the architecture of online hate and misinformation,” and makes no mention of any political leaning on its ‘about us’ page. However the fundraising tweet below indicates it supports Black Lives Matter, a political organization, and the CCDH’s Wikipedia page links much of its senior management with leftist activism.

The NBC story soon got the attention of senior US politicians, with Senator Ted Cruz immediately drafting a letter to Google CEO Sundar Pichai. You can see the letter in the Tweet below, and we’ve also published it directly below that. Cruz accuses Google of “abusing its monopoly power in an effort to censor political speech with which it disagrees.”

Cruz goes on to make reference to section 230 of the US Communications Decency Act, which protects internet platforms, as opposed to publishers, from liability for content they host, including user comments. The gall of Google directly punishing two publishers for comments made on their sites, while Google itself is immune from such responsibility seems to have stuck in Cruz’s throat and we can expect him to actively support another Senator’s campaign to remove that protection.

Both of the affected sites have published pieces addressing Google’s actions. The Federalist refers largely to an interview its founder did with Fox News, in which he directed most of his ire at NBC rather than Google. The Zero Hedge piece also focuses on NBC, which is probably motivated in part by outrage at the practice of journalists trying to censor each other, and in part by a desire not to permanently burn bridges with Google.

In summary we are presented with the chilling spectacle of a digital advertising monopolist using that position to censor independent journalistic websites at the behest of a political activist group and in collaboration with another tech giant. On top of that it specifically targeted their comments sections, while its own enjoy legal immunity from any liability. As a result, Google has brought a ton of scrutiny on itself over a relatively trivial matter, something we suspect it must now be regretting.


10 comments

  1. Avatar Brenda Schmitt 17/06/2020 @ 4:23 pm

    Censorship of either side of any issue prevents meaningful conversation. People have to be allowed to comment freely, read freely and make up their own minds. Google controls too much of the online market to continue to be allowed to practice censorship against idea they don’t agree with. This is dangerous to free speech. Anyone who supports their right to believe what they believe and express it whichever side of the issues they are on, on such a public platform needs to be alarmed at Googles power. Google agrees with you this week, maybe next week they won’t. No company should be allowed to make those kinds of decisions or have a monopoly on the conversation and free speech. What might be helpful in this article any suggestion on how you can help other than commenting and voting. Maybe a link to the involved congressman and senators. Either side of the issue can then express their views freely and without censorship.

    • Scott Bicheno Scott Bicheno 17/06/2020 @ 4:36 pm

      Spot on. I did mention Cruz and Carr.

    • Avatar Martha Stemberger 18/06/2020 @ 3:22 am

      Well said. Thank you for speaking

    • Avatar Frederick Mosher 18/06/2020 @ 2:29 pm

      Unfortunately in our current world the extremists dominate the discussions and they have used their growing power to intimidate the majority of reasonable people. And the commercial media is obsessed with its own survival to the point that it will use any measure to appear to stay relevant so it supports the extreme positions to fan the fires of dissent. When partisan positions infest groups like Google and Twitter with such uncontrolled power the recipe is disaster.

  2. Avatar Martha Stemberger 18/06/2020 @ 3:21 am

    Censorship is censorship.
    Ideas — if phrased in a non-abusive way — are only ideas. Thoughts.
    If we shut down all ideas that might threaten someone, we kill independent thought.

  3. Avatar Frederick Mosher 18/06/2020 @ 4:57 am

    Journalism is essentially dead and it has done it to itself. The use of fear and bullying tactics in the name of victim rights is quite disgusting. But it is more than that. We are a few steps down the road to the end of western society as we used to know it. With all of the faults in our western society, and there certainly are many, we have to be credited for the most improvement in the quality of life in our society as compared to any other form of government attempted in history in any other place in the world. And Progressive Victim Rights Movements are actually the best representatives of the racist, fascist principles that they say they abhor. It is quite disheartening. My personal politics tend to lean towards a classic liberal orientation. But there is no political representation any longer in the west for this large and essentially disenfranchised group. There is no room for honest discussion and spirited differences that still embody respect and courtesy for each other in spite of some differences. At one time the points of agreement outweighed the differences and let us live together. That time appears to be done with.

  4. Avatar Taigen 18/06/2020 @ 12:59 pm

    – This comment has been censored by Google Inc. –

  5. Avatar kris frantz 21/06/2020 @ 11:54 am

    How could you, Google? Censorship? What, in the name of everything that resembles freedom, are you thinking? Stop this absurd and childish practice immediately.

  6. Avatar chris hadley 22/06/2020 @ 4:14 pm

    The irony is that Telecoms.com moderates and censors comments. Not on the basis of preventing hate speech or avoiding harm. Just on the basis of removing comments that Telecoms.com doesn’t like.
    Well done. You win first prize at #irony.

    • Scott Bicheno Scott Bicheno 22/06/2020 @ 4:24 pm

      Evidence?

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