Google hypocrisy and its defenders

In another episode underscoring the limitations of our free society, Google has blocked a lolicon site from its search results.  Supposedly this was in response to a report of child porn, but as reports, Little White Butterflies is merely a doujinshi scanlation site that handles lolita material.  No child porn whatsoever is involved, only drawings of fictional characters.

In response to suggestions that Google’s reflexive censorship is morally reprehensible, Relentlessflame argued:

“Morally reprehensible” is too harsh. Think about it for a moment. When Google receives this sort of complaint about a random unknown site, do you really expect them to ask their employees to visit the site in question to verify the validity of the complaint (potentially exposing their employees to child porn)? And even if they try to verify the complaint about this sort of issue, do you expect them to pass it through a team of lawyers before they act on the request, placing them in a situation where they ostensibly knew about the issue and didn’t act on it right away? What if their lawyers are wrong on this issue? This seems pretty unreasonable to me.

Whether or not it’s ultimately the right end-result, I think the process followed here is the most logical one for all involved given the severity of the complaint. If they receive a take-down notice, they take the requested action and make the reason publicly-accessible. If that action turns out to be unjustified, they wait for the counterclaim/complaint. They can forward that counterclaim onto the proper authorities, and then the authorities can tell them if it’s okay or not. It seems to me they’re a lot better off risking being wrong a few times (and taking a few sites down that didn’t deserve to be) than to even try to make their own legal determination about this sort of content. It’s not as if the site’s been kicked off the Internet, they’re just no longer being indexed on Google. If it were me at the controls, I wouldn’t even look at the site being contested; it just isn’t worth the risk.

Wait, what risk?  The risk of Google being mildly inconvenienced, as opposed to being a hypocritical entity that censors search results based on political expediency?  Isn’t this the same company that wasn’t comfortable doing business with a government that sees fit to arbitrarily control what people can and cannot see based on politics?

Google should at the very least wait for the government to issue them a formal notice to block a site (as horrifying as that sounds.)  There’s no reason it should let any random guy who gets offended by a site complain and have it blocked, especially without review.  Practically, I’d understand if the government actually forced them to censor a site because then it’s legally out of their hands (as things were in China), but there’s no defense for this willy-nilly “we heard there might be something bad about it so we went ahead and deleted it” approach.

Would it be morally reprehensible if this was a bunch of conservative Californians complaining about a site that promoted gay marriage, and Google went ahead and delisted the site without bothering to check if it was actually illegal?  Absolutely.  And is it any less reprehensible for them to similarly delist this site, which was not definitively confirmed by the authorities as unambiguously illegal?

When thoughts are ranked by how acceptable they are to society, that is oppression.  Sure, a quasilegal scanlation site is hardly a big deal politically and nobody will go to bat for them – but the very fact that this is so makes it all the more clear where society is in terms of actually allowing, much less encouraging, free thought and speech.


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27 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. /yawn

    This sort of stuff is old hats. People crying over false DMCA takedowns go way back. Like a decade ago. But I guess that’s just how I look at it.

    • It’s distinct from a false DMCA takedown in that child porn is a very touchy issue in Western society.

  2. Ehh… isn’t google free to host whatever content it likes in its search engine database? Legal or illegal…?

    • The legal angle is that Google doesn’t want to be seen as aiding and abetting distribution of child porn.

      That said, they have no legal responsibility unless an authority clearly and unambiguously identifies a certain site as a distributor of child porn. As far as I can tell, none of that happened in this case.

      • Seems fair… keep in mind that when an uneducated slob (read: majority of humanity) sees lolicon on google, they’re gonna think exactly that google is promoting child porn.

      • None of which has any bearing on their legal or ethical responsibilities, which is why I say this is a political move.

  3. Do I expect Google to check the claim out? Well, yeah. If they remove sites based on the honor system, what stops me from sending complaints to remove perfectly legitimate sites because I don’t like them? Google has deep pockets, it’s not like they can’t hire an intern and make it one of his or her jobs.

    • They don’t even have to. They can wait for the DOJ to make a determination on legality, and keep their hands clean entirely.

  4. >> Well, yeah. If they remove sites based on the honor system, what stops me from sending complaints to remove perfectly legitimate sites because I don’t like them?

    Nothing. Except that people who are delisted will complain and eventually it’ll build up a track record against the person abusing the system.

    Furthermore, that also exposes the person submitting false requests to civil liability. Especially in the context of economic harm…

    • Heh, that was my entire point. 😉

  5. The witch-hunt of our time. I note that Google does provide results for “how to build an atom bomb” and “how to make a pipe bomb.”

    • lolololol

      • It really is like McCarthyism.

  6. It’s easy to yell right vs wrong when you’re not the one shouldering blame for responsibilities…

    Are google hypocrites? Yes, but not because of this. Just as you maintain your right to be dissatisfied and change search providers, they maintain the right to protect themselves through the most assured methods.

    Forcing your employees to perform illegal activities (e.g. browse child porn) is an illegal action anyhow.

    • They don’t have to do that – they can leave it up to the Justice Department to inform them via official channels. There’s no need to jump the gun and delete a site just for alleged impropriety.

      Going back to my example about a site promoting gay marriage, they’d be within their rights to delete that too. But it’s got more political capital, so they don’t dare treat it that way.

      Google gladly accepted the sympathy of the anti-censorship crowd when they conflicted with China, but they don’t feel a need to stick to strong anti-censorship principles over something politically untenable like lolicon material. What is that if not hypocrisy?

      • It’s about image, though.

    • This was the spirit of my comment from earlier today. They have a procedure in place to deal with these complaints. From all evidence, they followed procedure in this case too; they received the notice, published it, and took the appropriate action. The argument both here and in the original post is that the procedure is too presumptive because it seems like all it takes is a simple complaint and possibly some form of cursory review to take the content off the index. The fact is we have no idea who made the complaint, the nature of the accusation, the files they used as evidence, or anything. We are taking the site at their word that there was in fact no “real” objectionable content anywhere on the site; probably a reasonable assumption, of course, but we don’t have all the facts.

      Plus, the last point was a particular concern. How can they be expected to review these claims if accessing the material in question is illegal if the claim is true? This seems like a big problem. I still think it’s more logical to immediately hand it off to the authorities and wipe your hands of it as quickly as possible, but that’s just me. Perhaps Google has employees with some sort of special immunity to allow them to do this review job… but talk about a job I would not ever want.

      I guess I can’t find it in myself to call this “hypocrisy” when all they appear to be doing is following documented procedure and doing due diligence. There isn’t some sort of “secret censorship” going on here; they’re upfront about what they did and why. We can criticize their policy for being too ripe for abuse, but that doesn’t mean it’s “hypocrisy” unless we can show that no recourse is possible and they irreversibly censor things that aren’t illegal. And the fact is that at this point, there just isn’t enough information to know.

      • “I still think it’s more logical to immediately hand it off to the authorities and wipe your hands of it as quickly as possible, but that’s just me.”

        Yes, this is precisely what I am saying they should have done. And they did NOT do this, or they would say that the government had instructed them to delete this, not that they had responded to a “user tip.”

  7. Oh, and to the question of “What risk?” brought up in the main post: The risk of having known that child porn could be accessed through your site and not having done anything about it. I assume (but granted, am not sure) that there must be some sort of law that makes this “knowledge without action” illegal.

    Clearly, unlike gay marriage, it isn’t as obvious — at least to some people — whether or not lolicon content counts as child porn. This could be a simple case of misinformation, or perhaps they have in fact received legal advice that this is how they should interpret the relevant statutes. Perhaps they do in fact have it “on good authority” and we just don’t know. But regardless, the fact that there’s perceived ambiguity on this point is the real issue here. My main point was that they’re following a documented process that — I’m guessing — probably wouldn’t be questioned if they were dealing with material that is clearly and obviously illegal. So the problem here is about the “obviousness” of the offense; to us it’s “obviously not” illegal, to someone it “obviously is”. That needs to be addressed.

    • Having a random person complain about a site and doing nothing about it if you CANNOT legally verify that complaint is NOT a legal risk. You do not seem to understand this, and I don’t know if it’s because you don’t understand legal liability, or if you didn’t bother to read the part where google made it clear that this was in response to a USER tip, not an official DOJ request.

      Reflexively banning anything which might be associated with a topic hardly qualifies as a proper procedure.

      • I guess it’s rather simple. You’re assuming that they can’t be held legally liable if they don’t action an official child porn report just because it comes from a “User” and not from the DOJ. Are you sure that’s the case? If that’s true and they don’t have any legal obligation to take action to User Requests other than just passing them on, then I can agree with your argument. As I said, I’m not familiar with the American law here. I think in some other jurisdictions, you would have to take action based on simple suspicion/accusation.

      • I am sure that in a reasonable reading of the law they wouldn’t go to jail, nor would they be fined, for simply waiting on the DOJ to pass judgment. (Of course there are always miscarriages of justice where the judge/jury have an axe to grind or there is huge political pressure to get a desired result independent of what the law says.)

        The spirit of the law in America is that someone is innocent until found guilty, not the other way around.

  8. […] are their legal obligations in these matters? It is not entirely fair to say that this removal is tantamount to dropping sites advocating gay marriage. The difference is that there are federal laws addressing the way content providers must handle […]

  9. Google even pressure china while they are now developping. He’ll get banned for sure lol

  10. Perhaps the best solution is to boycott Google. Problem is they own so much!

    This issue is less about law than about social attitudes – of the state (USA) and the culture (the ruling class is largely Anglo Protestant). You don’t see Spain or Taiwan getting their balls over a tasteful (or even tasty) photo of Brooke Shields at 12.
    [documenting changing representations of minors in mainstream men’s magazines over the decades]

  11. Who is the author of the drawing in this page? is it you? if yes, let’s keep in touch. I like your style. This is my site: AMICINA (a social network for chinese people and people interested in China). (by the way.. I am italian)

    • This is a well-known parody of an even better-known piece, Liberty Leading the People. I’m not sure what the parody is called. It is not mine, but I apologize if I incorrectly assumed that everyone in my audience knew of it.

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