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Saturday, January 28, 2006

Does Google Only Remove Sites Which Don’t Work Anyway in That Country?

I want to answer one question: is it true that Google only removes sites in certain countries when those sites aren’t accessible anyway when you would click on them, or directly access them? No. While this may be true in China (I can’t test this for all results), it is not true e.g. in Germany. Here, searching for hides the site – without notice* – even though I can reach it fine by directly entering the URL in the browser bar. Again, Google is rightfully proclaiming to follow local laws** – you have to decide at what point a form of civil disobedience would be appropriate.

In the US, you might be able to test the same, if only for pages which have been removed due to copyright complaints – which I think is something very different from what happens in Germany with the cited search (or what happens in China for that matter). Search for “Whatever was going on in the head of L Ron Hubbard we may never know” in, and at the bottom of the results you will see that 1 page has been removed due to a copyright complaint by the Church of Scientology. Can you access the missing page the quote was taken from, HCOB/FU-HCOB-630511.html?

The only right a search engine should have in its job of objectively mirroring the web is to prevent someone from abusing the results, i.e. destroying its objectivity by abusing flaws in its algorithm. This is what happens when e.g. a black-hat SEO site gets banned on Google. Such banning increases the relevance of the index, and its objectivity, because the banned site is not the most relevant; if anything, it cheated to get on top. These are algorithmic tweaks to the organic results (I am not sure if there are manual blacklists too for this, as usually Google tries to automate everything). In the cases of removals due to country-specific censorship regulations, however, the relevance of the results – their objectivity – is partially destroyed.

(On a side-note, pushing other, more “law"-friendly results higher up due to removal of some results – as opposed to completely hiding the search result – in a single country has the perverse effect that linkage to these sites may increase now in that country, which in turn affects the organic search results worldwide. This effect may already take place in Germany; it is less likely to affect a Chinese user, as she’d only have seen the site in question had she managed to find alternate ways to search for and access it in the first place, e.g. by using a proxy. She is also much less likely to link to it because this form of free speech could get her into trouble.)

So we can see that Google sometimes removes result pages even when they could theoretically be reached in the country. Again, for China this isn’t the case from what we’ve heard – there, the pages themselves are blocked in responsibility outside of Google. Does this also mean that Google could at least always display to all Chinese users the headline, URL and snippet on result pages, even when the page is missing? No, we can’t say that for sure either. The Chinese government can block the search query itself, or can block the entire search engine (or news aggregator) if it’s not in accordance with local laws.

So in the case of China, does it really matter who’s involved in blocking something, when it’s blocked anyway to the end user? Yes. Everyone in the chain of censorship that is taking place in China – a censorship that goes against global human rights – is responsible for making a moral decision whether to “follow the order” according to local law, or show disobedience even at the risk of being completely silenced. Or would you say the police man who arrests someone because that someone used his human right of free speech is not responsible because he’s “just following orders” in accordance with the local law? Of course, Google is much less responsible (guilty, if you will) because the censorship request does not originate with them; it is not originally their intent to censor the site. But that doesn’t save them from the moral dilemma they’re in now, because they’ve made an active decision. In working together with the Chinese government, they decided that the requested censorship is not so evil as to justify not to implement it, or that in this case, the end justifies the means.

*Google’s updated censorship help entry admits that, “For some older removals (before March 2005), we may not show a notice at this time.”

**In this context it’s worth noting that Yahoo Germany does not censor, and that Yahoo does not face any problems here due to that in terms of becoming unavailable.


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