Google’s Gatekeepers

Sobering piece by Jay Jeffrey Rosen exploring the critical role that Google’s corporate gatekeepers play in deciding what can and cannot be shown to audiences.

“Right now, we’re trusting Google because it’s good, but of course, we run the risk that the day will come when Google goes bad,” [Timothy] Wu told me. In his view, that day might come when Google allowed its automated Web crawlers, or search bots, to be used for law-enforcement and national-security purposes. “Under pressure to fight terrorism or to pacify repressive governments, Google could track everything we’ve searched for, everything we’re writing on gmail, everything we’re writing on Google docs, to figure out who we are and what we do,” he said. “It would make the Internet a much scarier place for free expression.” The question of free speech online isn’t just about what a company like Google lets us read or see; it’s also about what it does with what we write, search and view.


Ed Felten adds this:

Rosen worries that too much power to decide what can be seen is being concentrated in the hands of one company. He acknowledges that Google has behaved reasonably so far, but he worries about what might happen in the future.

I understand his point, but it’s hard to see an alternative that would be better in practice. If Google, as the owner of YouTube, is not going to have this power, then the power will have to be given to somebody else. Any nominations? I don’t have any.

What we’re left with, then, is Google making the decisions. But this doesn’t mean all of us are out in the cold, without influence. As consumers of Google’s services, we have a certain amount of leverage. And this is not just hypothetical — Google’s “don’t be evil” reputation contributes greatly to the value of its brand. The moment people think Google is misbehaving is the moment they’ll consider taking their business elsewhere.