How Google Decides

Check out this interesting article in New York Times Magazine on the legal team Google currently employs to make decisions about controversial content. Nicole Wong, Google’s deputy general counsel, leads the group and daily must walk the thin line between protecting free expression and mollifying the world’s easily offended governments.

YouTube in particular has proved treacherous legal ground in Turkey and Thailand, where statutes make it illegal to speak out about certain taboo topics (respectively: Ataturk and Thailand’s aging constitutional monarch). Part of Google’s controversial response has been to program geolocational filters into YouTube’s search function.

Nicole Wong runs the other half of the operation. Her team of humans attempt to analyze videos flagged as “inappropriate” by users and angry governments. They must then make decisions which balance local laws and YouTube’s terms of service agreement with a purported commitment to free speech.

The most interesting part of the article speculates on how long, in a rapidly proliferating landscape of user content, Google can practically keep up this kind of case by case kind of judgment. The approach is itself already flawed. Only the most clamorous and sensitive material crosses Wong’s desk. That means that hundreds of content decisions are given much less legal attention and care, but are just as final and unquestionable.

The alternative I suppose is the nastiness of auto-filters and national firewalls, but my faith in a benevolent Google dictator, both capable and just in its patrol of the net, is not overwhelming. Nor am I completely convinced as yet that agree to censor a small number of videos (let us say, for example, the offensive “Ataturk is gay” clips) is a moral compromise small enough to swallow, even for the sake of partial YouTube access.

I was thinking about a possible analogy with the former East Germany. Should the West have capitulated in shielding East Germans from images or reports of its quality of life and political freedom? Google is a company, not Radio Free Europe, but complicity, however careful, with any government’s attempt to create a closed information world is troubling, at best.

If there is some hope, it rests with something like the Berkman-backed GNI (Global Network Initiative), which created an international, multi-company framework for guidelines and legal accountability when it comes to free expression online. Google is participating in this agreement; but it is not alone, co-signing with giants like Yahoo! and Microsoft and prominent human rights groups (minus Amnesty International which has criticized the initiative).

This will hopefully distribute the burden of responsibility away from companies with potentially compromising internal profit motives (even gentle giants like Google) to a cross-market competition for high compliance ratings (and the potential of “socially responsible” investment capital to follow). In that picture, companies will have an incentive to stick to their guns when it comes to free expression and allies when parliaments and bureacrats come calling for the internet’s silence.

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2 Responses to “How Google Decides”

  1. Jodi Suguitan Says:

    It seems like regulating something as large as You Tube would be an impossible task. From a technical perspective there is a mountain of content to sift through. From a subjective angle I don’t know if you can ever make everyone happy. I guess at the least you can strive to only present what is “legal” in that locale.

  2. » Google Under Fire I&D Blog Says:

    […] be impossible for Google to pre-screen even a fraction of those clips. A while back, in my article “How Google Decides,” I talked about how even the current method of reviewing flagged videos for legality may ultimately […]