Enlightened Despot: Is Google Fit to Tell Good from Evil?
For decades Google has been widely criticized for privacy breaches and turning its host of services into a perfect global surveillance mechanism. But it took a while until this global corporation owned up to the criticism, albeit silently.
It was the year 2018 when Google officially dropped its long-standing “don’t be evil” motto and shifted to a much more sustainable “do the right thing.” Evil may be a vague concept, but often immediately identifiable by onlookers. The right thing, on the other hand, is just what someone thinks is right for them.
See No Evil
Why 2018? Some connect this to Google’s attempt to rekindle the relationship with China. When you want the Chinese market and the Chinese government tells you to do the “right thing,” you do it. Because filtered Google has to be better than no Google at all. But the “do no evil” part gets buried under the torrent of accusations of hypocrisy.
Do all global corporations just have to do evil to function? Perhaps, given their nominal goal is making profits. Often they are tempted with overwhelming profits that require certain adjustments in core values. We’re of course talking about China. China is a litmus test for every global corporation proclaiming adherence to western liberal values, like freedom and human rights.
Disney failed this test, as did other corporations like Blizzard, NBA, and Apple. At first, Google pushed back even withdrawing from the Chinese market for a while. But eventually, it did try to dip its toe in Chinese waters once more, at the same time working with other not very liberal governments.
Even according to Google’s ex-execs something was rotten in the state of Denmark:
“Some will say that Google was always a bad corporate actor, with less than transparent privacy practices. But there is a significant difference between serving ads based on a Google search and working with the Chinese government on artificial intelligence or hosting the applications of the Saudi government, including Absher, an application that allows men to track and control the movement of their female family members,” Google ex-Head of International Relations Ross LaJeunesse wrote in his blog.
In his blog, Ross LaJeunesse talks about a noticeable cultural shift within Google. In the wake of this shift in 2018, Google quietly sheds its “don’t be evil” slogan and behind the closed doors comes up with a new censorship paradigm, fashioning itself a “good censor.” This is an incredibly important document that tells volumes about the corporate outlook on the issue. It is safe to assume that many other digital corporations nowadays use the same guidelines.
So, what is a good censor?
The presentation rightly establishes that Google has tremendous power over global and local socio-political agenda.
“For a long time, we thought of censorship in terms of governments and nation-states, and I think now we’re in an era in which people are starting to realize that private companies, probably more than ever before, control people’s ability to amplify their voices, and whether or not their speech stays up or comes down, also what they see and what they can listen to, what they can read,” the presentation quotes the Internet scholar Kalev Leetaru.
With great power comes great responsibility. Google sees itself as King Solomon trying to resolve a seemingly unresolvable grievance. One side champions free speech, while the other demands censorship of “bad behaviour,” The presentation then attempts to rationalize why the scales are tipping on the side of censorship. It mentions the first amendment and subtly hints that it just might be outdated because people, due to the peculiarities of their very nature, tend to misbehave.
“Human beings en masse don’t behave very well,” the presentation quotes scholar Jason Pontin. And while “the Internet was founded on the utopian principles of free speech” it so happened that “the early utopian period of the Internet has collapsed under the weight of bad behaviour.”
The premise here is that Google wielding power over global social and political discourse can dictate the public at large what is good and what is bad behaviour (even outside the U.S. law).
Google decided to impose moral authority upon its users who must be protected from each other’s bad behaviour by a corporation that was caught being naughty on multiple occasions. The concept of a “good censor” is no different from the concept of a “benevolent tyrant” whose despotism is, as John Mill put it, “a legitimate mode of government in dealing with barbarians, provided the end be their improvement.”
It is important to note, that this presentation came at the time when Google was working on Project Dragonfly, a tool meant to help the Chinese government spy on its citizens. The project was since discontinued. But this document, apparently concocted to justify the necessary revision of values within the framework of Google’s cooperation with China, still haunts the Internet.
So What? Aren’t They All Like That
They probably are. As suggested by our friend, one of the biggest crypto YouTubers Tone Vays, decentralized solutions are not necessarily any better than legacy ones.
“I don’t see any of these projects actually being decentralized. Any company that is hosting your content is responsible for your content. If one of these projects, whether its Steemit or BitTube or Hive, gets big enough they will become YouTube. And they will censor you all the same,” he said.
Our Occupy the Internet project in part started to challenge this idea. But it is becoming obvious that Tone was correct in his assessment of the situation on many levels.
Even now Steemit is involved in censoring its recent offshoot Hive. Platforms like Mastodon were also seen exercising arbitrary censorship. Mastodon instance admins can basically deny users of their instance the ability to discover certain other instances within the network, thus filtering and controlling the flow of information. Mastodon has also donned the “good censor” mantle.
Even legacy media sees decentralized solutions not as ideological rivals but only as a means to conveniently alleviate some of their current burdens and are ready to embrace and co-opt them.
Twitter is funding a small independent team of up to five open source architects, engineers, and designers to develop an open and decentralized standard for social media. The goal is for Twitter to ultimately be a client of this standard. 🧵
— jack (@jack) December 11, 2019
All that being said, decentralized solutions with time can still breach a dent in the tremendous monolith that is a few global corporations. Corporations that alone hold a nigh absolute power to censor and direct the global social discourse. No government in human history ever had the power of that magnitude and we are still grasping to realize the scale of damage it can do to democracies.
Instead of fighting this oligopoly, governments often strive to use these platforms as their extension to suppress speech. Except, apparently, President Trump who is universally hated by the entire Silicon Valley to a point where they are unable to cooperate.
We can already see the backlash coming from the POTUS stemming from Twitter’s altering President’s tweets. And given the previous court ruling, which stated that Trump’s Twitter account amounted in fact to a “public forum,” he might have a solid case.
A final thought on free speech is that there will likely be no solution that will be absolutely adamant on protecting consumer’s right to freely access and disseminate non-illegal information. Every denizen of the web ultimately will have to take care of himself which in this case means having to diversify his presence in social media and use both legacy and decentralized social networks to broaden the personal scope and reach.
This article is a part of our Occupy the Internet series, where we review the current trends in the nascent decentralized web and cover the burning issues of privacy and censorship.
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