Sunday, September 17, 2017

Search Engine Censorship

Last night I read the World Socialist Web Site's "Open Letter" to Google regarding allegations that the site has been "blacklisted" by manipulating search results so that the site is ranked lower and traffic is thereby reduced:
World Socialist Web Site. (2017, August 25). An open letter to Google: Stop the censorship of the Internet! Stop the political blacklisting of the World Socialist Web Site! 25 August 2017
...Beginning in April of this year, Google began manipulating search results to channel users away from socialist, left-wing, and anti-war publications, and directing them instead towards mainstream publications that directly express the views of the government and the corporate and media establishment (i.e., the New York Times, Washington Post, etc.), and a small number of mildly left “trusted” websites whose critiques are deemed innocuous (i.e., Jacobin Magazine and the website of the Democratic Socialists of America, which functions as a faction of the Democratic Party).

As a pretext for these actions, Google announced that it was making changes to its search algorithm “to surface more authoritative content,” a term that brings to mind efforts by authoritarian regimes to censor the Internet and, specifically, political views deemed outside the consensus as defined by the establishment media.

Ben Gomes, Google’s vice president for search engineering, attempted to justify the imposition of political censorship with a blog post on April 25, claiming that the changes to the algorithm were a response to “the phenomenon of ‘fake news,’ where content on the web has contributed to the spread of blatantly misleading, low quality, offensive or downright false information.”
This site is not alone in making these allegations. Other "left" leaning sites have also reported that their search rankings are being manipulated, resulting in diminished web traffic (e.g., TruthOut and Atlernet).

I've been documenting increasing efforts to curb free speech on my blog. In June I posted on Censorship-as-security discussing the automation of censorship. In August I posted a blog entry titled, Free Speech in the Crossfire detailing efforts to curb free speech in both legal and technological arenas ( here ). I'm re-posting excerpts from both entries in my discussion below:

The movement to censor search results - and to do so by systematically biasing search result and by slowing down certain sites - is occurring insidiously in a series of discrete moves.

The Internet is being fully monetized with the end of net neutrality, which is being pursued by Trump and the telecommunication industry, as explained here:
Sergey Denisenko Feb 20, 2017 The implications of the end of net neutrality
The end of net neutrality will significantly impact free speech as "pay for play" obviously favors large corporations with expansive budgets.

Secondarily, web content on social media sites will be censored before it is actually posted, sanitizing it from images or words that are designated as troubling, as illustrated by Facebook’s efforts in this regard:
Sam Schechner. (2017, June 15). Facebook Boosts AI to Block Terrorist Propaganda. The Wall Street Journal,
New software is tasked with identifying videos, photos, language and users that need to be removed, at times without human moderators.

Search results will be filtered using criteria that separate out information coded as “true” from information coded as “fake” as Google and other engines incorporate criteria such as “truthiness.”  Google’s first attempt to evaluate the truthfulness of sites was PageRank, according to CNN, which illustrated the challenges in automating codification of truth and not-truth:

The truth, according to Googleby Ivana Kottasova (March 4, 2015). CNN Money

The company is figuring out how to rank websites by the veracity of their content. The more truthful the page, the higher up it would appear in search results.

Google (
GOOG) currently sorts search results based on criteria such as the number of links pointing at the website, the amount of time users spend on it, as well as the prominence of its social media profile.

The algorithm, named PageRank after Google co-founder
Larry Page, is supposed to rank websites based on their reputation.

The problem with this strategy is that it measured popularity over quality. So, Google developed a new criteria, whose current status is not entirely clear, as described further down in the same article:

To fix the problem, Google has come up with a new truth-seeking algorithm, describing it in a research paper first reported by New Scientist. So how would it work? The new algorithm draws on Google's "Knowledge Vault" -- a collection of 2.8 billion facts extracted from the Internet.  By checking pages against that database, and cross-referencing related facts, the research team believes the algorithm could assign each page a truth score. Pages with a high proportion of false claims would be bumped down in the search results. (here)

Google said the new algorithm is in the research stage. The scientists still need to figure out plenty of issues before it can be used, including ensuring the system appropriately deals with new facts on a topic. You can read more about Google’s Knowledge Vault here:

Google and other search engines may not have a choice about whether or not they include this type of criteria in their search results. They may be forced by advertising dollars and by government itself to engage in this process of constructing truth.

US H.R.5181 - Countering Foreign Propaganda and Disinformation Act of 2016114th Congress (2015-2016), simultaneously penalizes providers for “fake news” and promotes production and dissemination of government “fact-based” narratives to counter fake news that escapes the newly emerging filtering devices.

The lack aims to "develop a comprehensive strategy to counter foreign disinformation and propaganda and assert leadership in developing a fact-based strategic narrative" AND promoting a free press in countries vulnerable to foreign disinformation, as illustrated in this excerpt from the bill:

(4) the challenge of countering disinformation extends beyond effective strategic communications and public diplomacy, requiring a whole-of-government approach leveraging all elements of national power;

(5) the United States Government should develop a comprehensive strategy to counter foreign disinformation and propaganda and assert leadership in developing a fact-based strategic narrative; and

(6) an important element of this strategy should be to protect and promote a free, healthy, and independent press in countries vulnerable to foreign disinformation.

So, the US government is officially in the propaganda business.

And Internet companies are also under pressure to censor content deemed politically unacceptable:
Yoree Koh and Jacob Gershman (2017, August 17). US Tech firms are thrust into debate. The Wall Street Journal, B4.
...In the wake of weekend violence at a white supremacists' rally in Charlottesville, VA Alphabet Inc.'s Google and goDaddy Inc. stopped providing hosting support for the Daily Stormer, a neo-Nazi site that the companies said violanted their terms of service...Uber Technologies blacklisted white supremacist James Allen...

Deeepa Seetharaman (2017, August 17). Facebook Closed Offensive Forum. The Wall Street Journal, B4.
Facebook Inc dismantled a popular anonymous discussion board for employees last year that had become a forum for conservative political debate...
Meanwhile, organizations, such as the UCLA, that traditionally defend free speech by the public are under fire:
K-Sue Park (2017, August 17). The A.C.L.U. Needs to Rethink Free Speech. The New York Times,

The American Civil Liberties Union has a long history of defending the First Amendment rights of groups on both the far left and the far right. This commitment led the organization to successfully sue the city of Charlottesville, Va., last week on behalf of a white supremacist rally organizer. The rally ended with a Nazi sympathizer plowing his car into a crowd, killing a counterprotester and injuring many.

After the A.C.L.U. was excoriated for its stance, it responded that “preventing the government from controlling speech is absolutely necessary to the promotion of equality.” Of course that’s true. The hope is that by successfully defending hate groups, its legal victories will fortify free-speech rights across the board: A rising tide lifts all boats, as it goes.

While admirable in theory, this approach implies that the country is on a level playing field, that at some point it overcame its history of racial discrimination to achieve a real democracy, the cornerstone of which is freedom of expression.

What is the point of shutting down conversation? I am strongly OPPOSED to censorship because I feel it simply fuels discontent and will make rancorous conversations go underground where they will fester and become increasingly solipsistic.

Let reasoned debate be used to adjudicate TRUTH in the "marketplace of ideas" with censorship used only against those sites that unequivocally promote violence.

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