Over the last decade and a half, various legal disputes have brought to the attention of the public the issue of the social responsibility of Big Tech companies to control the flow of information on their channels. But in mid-January 2021, people of all ideological colours had indisputable proof that the decisions of technology giants have ramifications that go far beyond the commercial realm.
In early February, European Commission Executive Vice President Margrethe Vestager, responsible for digitalization in the European Union, welcomed the decision of social networks such as Facebook and Twitter to suspend US President Donald Trump from publishing new posts on their platforms. The statement confirmed the beliefs of one political camp and enraged the other. Still, Vestager’s position (different from that of German Chancellor Angela Merkel, for instance) fuelled a timely discussion about political censorship and big networks.
This is by no means the first time that corporate politics and policies are intertwined in a curious mix.
For many, the episode of censorship of the American president is the first occasion in which they judged the possibility that ideology could influence, perfectly legally, the decisions of a company that, because of its magnitude, is able to generate social echo on several continents. But this is by no means the first time that corporate politics and policies are intertwined in a curious mix. In fact, political censorship and even self-censorship are a much older practice, one that is insufficiently debated in the public space. Take, for example, the case of Google, one of the companies that proceeded to censor the US president’s online speech in January.
The tech empire that is Google
Google is a company whose primary identity is based, at least in theory, on the free flow of information. In practice, however, search engine architecture is a balance of forces in which relevant information is sometimes confused with popular information. And this has serious consequences.
Along with Amazon, Apple, Facebook and Microsoft, Google is one of the top five technology players in the world. Its combined information, technical and financial capacity make it one of the strongest transnational companies in the world.
As a multinational technology company specializing in Internet-related services and products, Google LLC, the main subsidiary of the American conglomerate Alphabet Inc., was deemed the most valuable brand in the world in 2017. Google’s brand value has risen steadily over the last decade, with 2020 being a record year, when the technology giant was valued at 323.6 billion US dollars, according to Statista Research Department. In terms of revenue, the same source indicates that in 2019, the corporation increased its income by 24 billion US dollars compared to the previous year, reaching a historical record of over 160 billion US dollars in revenue.
Another angle of looking at the sheer magnitude of this multinational online service company is by mapping out its servers. Although this is an almost impossible task, as there is currently no official information on the exact number of servers that Google hosts in its data centres, research and consulting firm Gartner estimated in 2016 that Google was using 2.5 million servers at that time. According to statistics, Google currently has more than 70 offices in more than 40 countries around the world, provides searches in more than 130 languages and mediates almost 25% of Internet traffic in North America—bigger than Facebook, Netflix, and Twitter combined.
In addition to its financial and physical computational power, what consolidated Google’s top position among the big tech players in the world is its informational capability. In the academic paper that founders Sergey Brin and Lawrence Page wrote for the public conference at Stanford University where they first announced the Google prototype, the engine was presented as a large-scale hypertextual search engine meant “to improve the quality of web search engines” by sorting through the ever-growing quantity of information available on the web. Google’s main goal, from the very beginning, was to provide relevant search results to users and to do so by “making relevance judgements and quality filtering.”
Website popularity contest
These judgements and filtering would be the result of an analysis of the relationship among websites, mainly based on checking backlinks in order to estimate the importance of a website. If a website was referenced by numerous other well-referenced websites, then the likelihood that the given site is a relevant one increased. Therefore, the website would be favoured and shown higher up in the search results. This mechanism still holds today, although current Google crawlers have diversified their relevancy criteria to a higher degree of complexity. The ranking criteria of Google are considered a trade secret.
Google’s ranking criteria are considered a trade secret.
Its reliance on the backlinks of websites inspired the search engine’s initial nickname of “BackRub”, although its original name was PageRank. In the official patent for PageRank, co-founder Larry Page quotes an earlier patent of RankDex, a similar page-ranking and site-scoring algorithm which was developed by a Chinese software engineer: Robert Li, who would later create the Chinese search engine Baidu.
PageRank would become Google, a name chosen to reflect its mission of crawling and sorting through vast amounts of information: “We chose our systems name, Google, because it is a common spelling of googol, or 10100, and fits well with our goal of building very large-scale search engines.” Google’s mission “to organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful” was supported by a code of conduct underlining a simple but powerful principle. In the documents for Google’s initial public stock offering, Brin and Page stated, “Don’t be evil. We believe strongly that in the long term, we will be better served—as shareholders and in all other ways—by a company that does good things for the world even if we forgo some short-term gains. This is an important aspect of our culture and is broadly shared within the company.”
In the current code of conduct, company representatives posit that, “While many companies claim to put their customers first, few are able to resist the temptation to make small sacrifices to increase shareholder value. Google has steadfastly refused to make any change that does not offer a benefit to the users who come to the site.” In contradiction of its corporate philosophy, however, Google did make changes to the detriment of its users when it entered the Chinese market.
The clash of the information empire with the empire of censorship
Economically, the Chinese market is a potential heaven for internet services companies. China’s nearly 900 million netizens account for almost 20 per cent of active internet users around the world. As of 2019, China was ranked first among the countries with the most internet users, leaving the United States in third position, with just over a third as many (313 million) as China’s internet users. The Chinese internet user spends an average of 25.9 hours a week online, the country having a little over 47.9% Internet penetration rate and therefore plenty of yet undisputed potential consumers. China’s Internet economy is larger than that of the United States in terms of percentage of gross domestic product (GDP), with Internet-related economic activities expected to reach 22% of the incremental GDP growth estimated through 2025—translating to $2.28 trillion of China’s GDP.
In 2006, when Google took the decisive step of launching its Chinese search engine, senior policy counsel Andrew McLaughlin acknowledged that entering the market meant the company had agreed to abide by governmental law and, implicitly, censor its content. According to MacKinnon, at that time, the company insisted it would remain true to its corporate social responsibility motto “don’t be evil”, but that it had to weigh two compromise situations: watering-down its mission of providing relevant information to Chinese users versus not providing any service at all to Chinese users. While McLaughlin admitted that censoring Google.cn’s results compromised the mission, he insisted that “failing to offer Google search at all to a fifth of the world’s population, however, does so far more severely.” So, in 2006, censorship won over free flow of information. The economic appeal of the Chinese market makes this decision easy to understand, just as the physical and legal infrastructure created by the Chinese government to censor a wide range of unwanted topics makes Google’s 2010 decision to then leave the market easy to understand.
The “Great China Firewall,” as the Chinese censorship system has been dubbed, sorts through not only companies that are allowed to sell an Internet connection to providers to which the population subscribes, but forces the entire flow of information through several gateways which “purify” them of undesirable concepts such as “human rights”, “democracy” or “freedom”.
The Chinese government prohibits nine main categories of information, including information that: (a) is contrary to the basic principles that are laid down in the Constitution, laws, or administration regulations; (b) is seditious to the ruling regime of the state or the system of socialism; (c) subverts state power or sabotages the unity of the state; (d) incites ethnic hostility or racial discrimination, or disrupts racial unity; (e) spreads rumours or disrupts social order; (f) propagates feudal superstitions; disseminates obscenity, pornography, or gambling; incites violence, murder, or terror; instigates others to commit offences; (g) publicly insults or defames others; (h) harms the reputation or interests of the state; or (i) has content prohibited by laws or administrative regulations.
In January 2010, Google announced the detection of “a sophisticated cyberattack orchestrated in China against Google’s systems.” This attack, combined with the (failed) attempt to hack the Gmail accounts of several human rights activists, led the company to conclude that it should no longer continue censoring results on Google.cn. Google made a proposal to the government to operate without censorship or leave the market, and the result was that Google.cn first moved its operations to Hong Kong (which is vested with independent judicial power), then closed them altogether, as a result of the site only being accessed with technical difficulty.
It is strange for a user from a democratic country to realize that information censorship really does exist today and that it affects a huge number of people. But perhaps even stranger is the ease with which the world forgot that just a few years ago Google China gave Chinese users results similar to those offered by Baidu today, yet did not consider it to be doing anything wrong. On the contrary, it dressed the whole move as a benefit to Chinese users when, in fact, they were providing them with the same filtered content that virtually all other Google competitors offered them.
The main promoters of freedom of expression shape this freedom according to relativistic criteria, political ideologies or even algorithms that fall under trade secrecy, all in nuanced obedience to regional or national market rules (i.e. inconsistent from one country to another). Therefore, the freedom we happen to enjoy today is not a given, but a vulnerable construction that not everyone can enjoy equally.
Unfortunately, shades of inequality can be seen even in societies where freedom of expression is not under government pressure. In these societies, expression is affected by the gaps that seem to widen between generations—generations that have not had the opportunity, time or skill to build a healthy relationship with new technologies and the generations that were born with them and who, paradoxically, suffer from a kind of functional digital illiteracy, manifested by a confidence without too much reserve in everything that Big Tech companies have to offer.
Alina Kartman is a senior editor at ST Network and Semnele timpului.