How The Myth Of Google Censorship Was Busted By The EU & Canada
For years, Google successfully imposed censorship demands on "country-specific" versions of Google. Those days may now be over. Censorship demands of one country might cause a global change for all.
For over a decade, Google has successfully convinced various governments that it is censoring its search results when it actually wasn’t. Finally, the governments have figured this out. Now that the myth is exposed, both Google and governments finally have to deal with the hard decisions of censorship.
This week, a court ruling in Canada and a privacy regulator in France are demanding that Google censor its search results worldwide, not just within versions of Google that the company runs for those countries.
Both of these bodies have been unconvinced that Google’s censorship on only country-specific versions of Google is sufficient. That’s because both understand that it’s not difficult to get around such censorship. That’s a change from how past governments have viewed things, in particular China.
Let’s explore some of that past history, as well as the technical situation. That’s important to the implementation of these rulings. Don’t worry. It’s not too technical.
Google.com: The World’s Search Engine
Once upon a time, there was only one version of Google — Google.com. Everyone used it; everyone got the same results.
Eventually, Google began altering the results of what Google.com served. If you were in the UK, and you searched for football, you’d get information related to what Americans call soccer rather than American football.
Offhand, I don’t know exactly when that change happened. But it was over a decade ago. Also back those many years ago, Google eventually created country-specific versions of Google. For example, a Google UK was established, which lives at Google.co.uk. The purpose was to make it even easier for people to get UK-specific search results as well as to improve ad targeting.
The Country-Specific Googles
A county-specific version of Google isn’t an independent search engine disconnected from Google overall. All the same content is available as with Google.com, unless Google does something. Usually, content is just listed differently when someone searches, in a fashion that Google thinks will be helpful for people in a particular county. For instance, content written in the language of a particular country might get a boost.
The problem Google has faced with country-specific versions is that habits are hard to break. People were used to going to Google.com, and they kept doing that even when country-specific versions were introduced. To solve this, about 10 years ago, Google began redirecting people. For example, if you tried to reach Google.com from the UK, you’d get redirected to Google UK at Google.co.uk.
If you really wanted, you could get back to Google.com. You could even make this your permanent choice. Google’s made that much harder now, something I’ll get back to in a moment.
Google’s History Of Censorship
Google has been censoring its search results for almost as long as Google has existed. It mainly began with banning and dropping web sites that were deemed to be violating its spam guidelines. No government ordered this; Google itself took action.
Google also censored in accordance with the US Digital Millennium Copyright Act. I don’t know exactly when Google first censored because of a DMCA request. But the DMCA began when Google did, and as a US-based company, it has long followed that law.
Notably, Google followed that law worldwide, to my knowledge. DMCA removals happen globally, even though it’s a US law. In part, this is because there’s no “American Google” where only American censorship can be applied. Even so, there’s no reason why Google couldn’t remove content from Google.com but allow it in places like Google UK or Google France. Google could. It just doesn’t. That means it imposes American censorship on other countries, to my understanding.
Google has also long censored in other countries according to local laws. A classic example is in Germany, where it is not allowed to list Nazi-related sites. This can easily been seen by searching for “nazi” on Google.com and comparing to Google Germany at Google.de.
No one really complained much about country-specific censorship in the US or Germany or elsewhere until Google moved into China. There, because censorship was related to political content, Google came under huge attack when it began operating in the country with censorship in 2006.
But in reality, Google didn’t actually didn’t censor Chinese search results.
How Google Faked Out China
OK, yes. Google did censor search results for those using Google China specifically. But Google also made sure anyone could get uncensored results if they went to Google.com. In Steven Levy’s excellent book Inside The Plex, there’s a great section covering how the Chinese authorities finally realized the whole censorship exercise was a myth. I’ve bolded the key part:
Google could also point to the fact that it offered users of its .cn search engine a link to the standard Google.com site. Including that link had been a key part of Google’s internal compromise to allow filtering. It was like an escape hatch to freedom, even if the Chinese government then blocked the results from that site.
Chinese officials themselves used the link: one member of the Politburo, Li Yuanchao, visiting Mountain View in 2009, wryly called the .com link his social secretary—he used it often to find news articles about himself.
But apparently another member of the Politburo, Li Changchun, was horrified when he Googled himself on the global search engine and discovered links to critical comments about him. Since Li Changchun was China’s top propaganda officer, he had a means to express his outrage.
That spring the government demanded that Google remove the link on its local site that directed interested users to the Chinese language Google.com. Google officials considered this demand beyond the scope of censorship; it meant that Google would be breaking the commitment it had made to Congress that it would always keep that link, just as it did on every localized version of the Google search service in the world.
After a couple of months of standoff, the Chinese government suggested that maybe Google shouldjoin it in a joint committee to study the problem further. Google was off the hook but realized that at any point, the problem could resurface.
The problem went away for Google in part because since China intercepts search traffic for all of its country, it could block people from reaching Google.com, especially if it detected them doing searches for censored content. It also went away because, well, Google went away. In 2010, after a hack on its servers, Google decided to stop censoring its search results in China.
Other Countries Wake Up
By and large, Google’s been successful with various demands over the years in pulling content out of country-specific versions — as it did with China — while keeping that content in Google.com, which anyone worldwide could access. But last year, twin cases started blowing apart the myth that Google was fulfilling its censorship obligations.
The first was in Canada. Last year, Google was ordered to remove content about a company in a trademark case worldwide, not just in Google Canada. Google appealed that case. This week, it lost that appeal. It’s unclear if Google will appeal again. It has at least one more attempt at doing so.
The Canadian action was overshadowed by the rise of the Right To Be Forgotten in the European Union. As Google implemented removal requests under this new right, it only did so within the country-specific versions of Google where the request initiated. Various privacy agencies in the EU realized this meant such content remained on Google.com, easily accessible to EU citizens who went there. They’ve pressured for broader censorship.
This week, the French privacy regulator demanded Google censor globally. Now, we’re waiting for Google’s response. Potentially, it could appeal and face fines while that process happens.
The New Era Of Google Censorship
The myth of censorship that Google had maintained is now busted. There’s no going back. Smart governments are going to understand that when Google censors only on country-specific versions, that’s not really censoring in the way they’ve demanded. So what happens next?
One holding action has been that Google has made it increasingly difficult to reach Google.com since fall of last year. Since I wrote about this in March, the situation has gotten even more difficult. On my trip to France earlier this week, there was no option to make Google.com my default choice. Google did seem to restore the Google.com link to always showing on the bottom of the Google France home page. However, using that option didn’t make it “stick” as a choice, as was the case for years.
Google could take further action. Anyone trying to reach Google.com in a country demanding total censorship, as with France, might get redirected back to Google France, at Google.fr. Technically, this isn’t difficult at all.
But would that be enough? What if the authorities in France remain upset that people outside France can see content they’ve ordered to be “forgotten.” That’s the tricky issue. Technically, Google could do this easily. It already does this for DMCA requests that happen in the US, imposing that censorship globally.
When One Country Censors For All
What the French authorities think might be great for privacy reasons could come back and haunt them politically. What if France or the EU disagrees with political censorship demands from a particular country aimed at Google? If Google has to pull content worldwide because of those demands, will they be happy that another country has imposed censorship on EU citizens?
I think not. A compromise might be that Google institutes IP-based censorship. This is where Google would look at someone’s IP address — it’s like their internet telephone number — and determine if they were within a particular country. If you’re actually within France, then you get French censorship. If you’re not, you don’t.
Google could implement this. The question is whether that would be enough for the cases in front of it now as well as more to come. If not, we’re heading into a world where the censorship demands of one country could be imposed upon the citizens of another.