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Google’s False Confessions

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Inside the company’s daring plan to control the news

The greatest trick that Google Corporation ever pulled, was to convince the world it didn’t exist. Although its shareholders know it as a profitable advertising brokerage, the majority of Internet users believe it to be nothing more than a benevolent purveyor of web search, email, and other free online services.

Google is a fierce and formidable competitor. Its network of websites is the Internet’s single most popular destination; it processes more search queries than all its competitors combined, including stalwarts Microsoft and Yahoo; its annual revenues and profits are measured in billions. Through all its successful expansions, Google has worked to maintain an image of simplicity and altruism.

Google’s bungled launch of their Buzz platform illustrated the pervasiveness, and the deceptive nature of this public image. Their initial decision to quietly convert 100 million private email contact lists into an open social network was met with immediate shock and outrage. It was widely regarded as an invitation to espionage and cyberstalking.

Google had chosen to present Buzz with a simplified interface that neglected its users’ privacy concerns. This was a profit-maximizing decision for the Buzz platform: a social network is only as valuable as the user data shared within it. By leveraging their enormous GMail database to expand into a new market, Google hoped to instantly close the gap with, or overtake their new competitors.

Public demand forced them to reconsider this “beta experiment.” Google product managers declared a “Code Red,” and company engineers worked nights and weekends to revamp the Buzz sign-up process. A week later, reporters in the traditional media breathed a sigh of relief, and praised the company for its contrition, and for acting in the broader public interest. According to a popular narrative, Google’s quick turnaround once again demonstrated their commitment to “do no evil.”

Simplifying the news industry

Traditional news media sources are suffering today, due to decreases in print circulation, loss of classified ads, and obsolete business models. Nobody disputes that the future of mainstream news publishing is online, and that Google will continue to lead the transition, extending its own reach and power along the way.

As explained by Google’s chief economist Hal Varian, “Serious reporting… has simply never paid its way.”

What exactly is Google’s role in online publishing today? Although it enjoys an esteemed reputation often reserved for public broadcasting services (with their strict policies against undue commercial influence), Google actually earns its money by placing advertisements.

This is how their ubiquitous AdWords program works: first, Google invites advertisers to bid for the right to display their commercial message, next to a desired set of keywords. Whenever or wherever Google can find those keywords–in web search results, or users’ email boxes, for example–it displays the highest bidders’ ads. Depending on the individual agreement, Google may then debit the advertiser’s account immediately, or only if a user clicks on the advertisement.

In order to gain access to a richer keyword database, Google designed the complimentary AdSense program. Independent publishers who agree to host Google-negotiated advertisements on their own websites are promised a percentage of the resulting AdWords income. There are currently over one million publishers participating in AdSense; only a small percentage of them earn anything near a living wage.

In an era where stories are consumed individually and immediately, rather than as cross-subsidized bundles of daily newsprint, the news is less profitable than ever before. As explained by Google’s chief economist Hal Varian, “Serious reporting…has simply never paid its way. What paid for newspapers were the automotive sections, real-estate, home-and-garden, travel, or technology, where advertisers could target their ads.” Relative to its new unbundled and electronic format, high-quality news is more expensive than ever before.

Google CEO Eric Schmidt confesses that, without the survival of serious journalism, his company’s own future is placed in jeopardy. Google does not consider itself a competitor to the traditional media outlets that provide shelter for good journalism; but it has no interest in directly supporting those outlets either. Instead, Google is working to address what it calls “inefficiencies” in its own online ad placement services.

Consolidation makes sense: increased efficiency is improved profitability. Why should every city manage its own news media organizations, and pay its own support staff, when Google can perform these functions remotely at a lower cost? The principle applies not only to the news industry, but to all electronic communications.

Google has not confined itself to sponsoring the written word, but has also experimented with (or committed to) supporting online maps, streaming online audio and video, spreadsheets and stock tickers, digital photography, medical records, traditional radio and television broadcasts, and even long-distance phone calls. It is all to fulfill Google’s corporate mission: “to organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful.”


The Beast File: Google

Google must admit that it intends to enrich its shareholders in the process. And we might agree, as a democratic capitalist society, that their corporate success is well-deserved–even if their gargantuan size has tilted the competitive playing field.

But would this be the full extent of our compromise?

Independent news with Chinese characteristics

When Google announced its intent to cease self-censorship in China, in defiance of Chinese law and precedent, they were hailed in the West as champions of human rights and free speech. Few thought to scrutinize the laws Google applies to its own vast publishing empire. As it turns out, Google’s content restrictions are no less oppressive than those applied by the Communists.

According to the longstanding official policies of the Google AdSense program, no publisher is permitted to create content that Google deems violent, mature, or intolerant. Any violation, as determined solely by agents of the Google Corporation, can result in immediate expulsion from the AdSense program.

Google’s editorial policies are no idle threat. According to one indignant former AdSense publisher: “Their entire program is Kafkaesque.”

The Chinese government is criticized for censoring online discussion of the Tiananmen Square massacre, and repression of Falun Gong practitioners. Incredibly, Google forbids these same topics as a matter of official policy. There are no exceptions for news reporting. (Unofficial policy allows these stories on a case-by-case basis, with risk of permanent expulsion born by their publisher.)

When a publisher is ejected from the AdSense program, they lose not only their source of income, but also their online friends and business partners. Google warns participants that, if they dare link to a forbidden work, they risk ejection themselves. Since Google and other search engines use incoming links to estimate a work’s importance, and consequently its proper ranking in search results, ejection from the AdSense program may constitute a de facto banishment from the public web.

Despite numerous requests from its partners, Google has declined to clarify what it considers to be unacceptably violent, mature, or intolerant content. Its precise definitions are either secret, arbitrary, or nonexistent; and the mere threat of enforcement is sufficient to produce a chilling effect.

This is Google’s vision for the future of the news.

Google’s secret trials

These policies are no idle threat, according to one indignant former AdSense publisher, who wished to remain anonymous in fear of retribution. “Their entire program is Kafkaesque. I asked for permission to write news and opinion for my chosen niche; my note was dismissed with a vague injunction to follow the guidelines. After surveying the market, I assumed that I could proceed safely. So I invested hundreds of hours producing and promoting my content.”

“Then they booted me out. An anonymous reviewer stated that I should have followed their guidelines, refusing for the second time to explain what those guidelines actually mean. Meanwhile, dozens of other AdSense websites continue to operate in the same niche, with similar content. I was wrong to place my trust in Google.”

Like any other private media organization, Google Corporation has the right to enforce its own editorial standards. But then again, Google is not like any other media organization. There are already more people in AdSense than in the state of Montana. The size of their audience, and the scope of their current and planned operations is unprecedented. With Google’s control over the flow of information, they are already an international government unto themselves; and theirs is not a rule of law, but of men. They endorse democracy, but deliver simplicity and efficiency instead. And nothing is simpler and more efficient than a dictatorship–at least from the dictator’s point of view.

Mystic philosopher Krishnamurti warned that the devil might come in the form of a search engine; that if we accidentally stumbled upon a piece of truth, the devil would help us to organize it. In its plans for guiding independent journalism, it seems that Google has abandoned the slogan “Don’t be evil,” and embraced “Don’t ask, don’t tell.”

Categories: Blogging · Economics

9 responses so far ↓

  • 1 Joshua // May 20, 2010

    Question: why is this on a martial arts oriented website? The reason I come here is for the stated goal of the site and not for articles that I could find better written elsewhere. You write an article that raises some interesting points with no proper citations or links. The only 2 links that you provide are not nearly enough to support an article that raises so many issues without being able to fact check your sources. The first link to The Atlantic article I found to be well written and is actually showing that Google is aware of the changes that have occurred and are working on providing options to improve to the publishers, if they want them. That is something that both your article and many others fail to mention with the whole giant Google tilting the playing field as you say. No one is forced to use Google, either online or as a business. There are plenty of other options out there. Sure you might not get ahead as fast or make as much money or get the “best” results but it is possible. If you own a company and choose not to let Google buy it, use it, or help it, that is the choice you made and there is nothing they can do, leaving you free to go your own way. As to these claims about their policies, they might very well be true but without proper sourcing how can we verify anything? In today’s world of inflamed opinions and the means to express them, there have to be some people that would be willing to come forward and be heard. Without any of that and especially links to where in the AdSense agreements people draw these conclusions from as evidence we ourselves cannot make informed opinions, which is something that your article claims to be doing. As to your second link, it is talking to me about the search for truth and how it is an individual pursuit and how any organization devoted to that is a waste of time. While I agree with that, nowhere does it actually mention search engines like you claim and is in fact railing against the filing of “Truth.” Where as Google wants to organize the worlds information, nowhere claiming that it is truth because as we know, you can have info without truth and truth without info depending on the individual as I think Krishnamurti would agree. While I have enjoyed most of this blog in the past for what it is and its stated offerings, if this sort of article continues you will lose me as a reader and RSS subscriber.

  • 2 Chris // May 20, 2010

    Question: why is this on a martial arts oriented website? The reason I come here is for the stated goal of the site and not for articles that I could find better written elsewhere.

    Your presence was never requested. Do keep that in mind…

    You write an article that raises some interesting points with no proper citations or links. The only 2 links that you provide are not nearly enough to support an article that raises so many issues without being able to fact check your sources.

    How many links did you find in the New York Times’ feature stories today? (Links to someone other than themselves, I mean.) The answer is: zero.

    Despite the fact that I am already more than twice as trustworthy as the NYT (as measured by link count), I’ve added a few more references for your convenience.

    The first link to The Atlantic article I found to be well written and is actually showing that Google is aware of the changes that have occurred and are working on providing options to improve to the publishers, if they want them.

    There is a difference between showing it and merely stating it. I’m glad you enjoyed James Fallows’ article–some of us are less impressed.

    No one is forced to use Google, either online or as a business. There are plenty of other options out there. Sure you might not get ahead as fast or make as much money or get the “best” results but it is possible. If you own a company and choose not to let Google buy it, use it, or help it, that is the choice you made and there is nothing they can do, leaving you free to go your own way.

    Have you ever heard the phrase, “I drink your milkshake”? If so, than you can probably figure out why this essay can appear on a martial arts blog without straying off-topic.

    If not, just pretend it was written by a Japanese samurai 400 years ago.

    As to these claims about their policies, they might very well be true but without proper sourcing how can we verify anything? In today’s world of inflamed opinions and the means to express them, there have to be some people that would be willing to come forward and be heard. Without any of that and especially links to where in the AdSense agreements people draw these conclusions from as evidence we ourselves cannot make informed opinions, which is something that your article claims to be doing.

    Well, you could have Googled for their policies, if you really wanted to know. So either you don’t actually care…or maybe you don’t trust their search results? Ha ha.

  • 3 Joshua // May 20, 2010

    Your presence was never requested. Do keep that in mind…
    Good point and I will remember that though I thought that the reason for a publicly findable blog in the first place was to get people to come and read and comment.
    Your point about links in general is well taken and also shows one of the major shifts that the journalism industry doesn’t talk about is the matter of outside fact checking. For too long they were accustomed to being the sole source for information and that ordinary people didn’t have the resources to confirm what was being said. Now with the vast access people have to different search engines to actually check, I believe that journalism and writing of all sorts from blogs to news has to adapt to this new paradigm in providing their sources, something that academia is actually ahead on with their requirement of citations. I freely admit that the point made by the precursorblog is a completely valid one and illustrates another issue of journalism that at least some people are aware of and is that more and more opinions and opinion pieces are being called journalism and seeping into the general flow of articles from even well respected outlets. This also begs another question, where are the editors that are supposed to be ensuring this sort of thing doesn’t happen without an opinion tag added?
    Well, you could have Googled for their policies, if you really wanted to know. So either you don’t actually care…or maybe you don’t trust their search results? Ha ha. As said providing that information or at least a link/citation/source to the area that is the specific issue allows greater transparency in showing where you draw your conclusions from. And one last point, with all these corporations from Microsoft, Apple, Yahoo, and Google there is no lessor evil option anymore, it is just a matter of picking your particular poison and dealing with the consequences.
    I hadn’t heard of that phrase and If not, just pretend it was written by a Japanese samurai 400 years ago. my imagination isn’t that strong and with remembering the very first response I will say one final thing:
    Bye!

  • 4 Colin Wee // May 20, 2010

    It’s a formidable opponent yet presents a different image of itself to the world?

    This is a powerful martial arts lesson.

    I’ve done this before in sparring – move slowly and strike fast. Go for one target then hit another. Make a person fear my legs then punch them in the face. Hurt them again and again until they can’t concentrate then end the fight.

    What’s the issue?

    Colin

  • 5 Chris // May 21, 2010

    Good point and I will remember that though I thought that the reason for a publicly findable blog in the first place was to get people to come and read and comment.

    Since when is “I’m not interested in the topic of this blog post, therefore it shouldn’t have been published” a valid comment?

    It’s a formidable opponent yet presents a different image of itself to the world? This is a powerful martial arts lesson…

    Thank you.

  • 6 Anonymous // Jul 19, 2010

    This was once one of the best-ranked martial arts blogs in the world, but some time after you published this article, Google dropped your PageRank to zero. (You can check this with the free Google Toolbar. Sure, it records every page you visit, but technically it’s still “free”.)

    PR0 is given as a punishment, to limit the visibility and destroy the commercial viability of a website. You are lucky they didn’t ban you outright.

    The relevance of this post to martial arts is totally obvious. Martial arts are violent. Google uses secret definitions and guidelines to censor violence. The only reliable defense is to work as a collaborator, that is, to make sure your content is unfailingly “useful” in the eyes of an advertising broker.

    The difference between truth and utility, with respect to martial arts, is like the difference between the ascetic heroes of martial arts history/legend and the purveyors of modern kiddie karate. This is exactly what Krishnamurti was talking about: in his story, man stumbles upon the truth, and the devil responds by whittling it down…to make it “more useful”.

  • 7 Anonymous // Aug 10, 2010

    And check out “5 Reasons You Should Be Scared of Google”
    http://www.cracked.com/article_18540_5-reasons-you-should-be-scared-google.html

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