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Google and Amazon: Morality and the web

Rory Cellan-Jones | 10:34 UK time, Thursday, 11 November 2010

The giants of the web have long insisted that they should be regarded not as media firms, responsible for the content that appears on their platforms, but as technology businesses shaped purely by their users' desires. But in the last 24 hours two web giants have shown, in very different ways, that this line may no longer be tenable.

The first example is Google. Until recently, the search giant insisted that if searchers turned up something unsavoury - from a jihadist video to the encouragement of anorexia - that was not really its responsibility. The algorithm did its work and that was that - you could not argue with what popped up on the screen. But today Google has announced that people who search for terms relating to suicide will see a message with contact details for the Samaritans.

Google says it hopes that by providing a highly visible link to the confidential support line, it can help those who are suicidal or distressed to reach help. In the United States the same approach has resulted in a 9% increase in calls to the National Suicide Prevention Line.

This may appear to be a wholly sensible and humane initiative but it might not have happened a few years back. Google has previously insisted that there are only two ways of appearing in its search results - the morally blind choices made by its algorithms and the sponsored links and ads paid for by those who bid for search terms.

Now there's a third reason - the public good. So perhaps there could be other messages planted next to search terms. If you look for jihadist videos or bomb-making instructions, should you get a link to a confidential police line? In the past, Google might have said "yes, if the police want to bid for those terms" - but could that now change?

The second case involves Amazon.com, the online bookseller. Last night a storm broke out on Twitter about a book which apparently promoted paedophilia. There was outrage that the retailer could see fit to make such a publication available, and threats of a boycott.

The book appears to have got on to the site through Amazon's self-publishing programme, where the only limits are what the retailer deems offensive - and there's no detailed guidance on what that means.

But Amazon issued a statement saying it would be censorship not to sell certain books because Amazon or others thought their message objectionable. That approach may be in keeping with the original spirit of the web, but is not one that you can see being adopted by any traditional media firm or high-street retailer.

And the irony is that it's the web which has made so visible an obscure book which might years ago have been passed around furtively among a few dozen men in some American city. Now it's the web and its global community of users which may force Amazon to change its mind about censorship.

Comments

  • Comment number 1.

    On the Amazon point, do you think it was right of TechCrunch to break the story without first checking with Amazon and giving them the chance to delete it from their list? It must have been obvious to TechCrunch that this would be a wildfire story that would give unbelievable coverage to a nasty little book and, according to Gawker, sales increased by some absurd figure after the TechCrunch story broke.

  • Comment number 2.

    I contacted Amazon and said that I would not be buying from Amazon until the book was removed.They tell me that they have removed the book from sale.
    I suggested that they need to update their policies on accepting publications for their catalogue - There is such a thing as social reponsibility for the common good and it's not the same as censorship.. I agree it's a fine line but not in so blatant a case as this.
    Write to Amazon let them know how you feel.

  • Comment number 3.

    How many of the outraged masses have actually read the book? I couldn't bring myself to condemn it without understanding what I was condemning. So I bought a copy and read almost the first chapter before I'd had enough. I can confirm that it is as bad as I thought it might be.

    To save anyone else the trouble, expense, nausea and possibly guilt, of buying this loathsome work, you can read my (absolutely not-for-profit or gain) review at billysugger.blogspot.com

  • Comment number 4.

    There's a big difference between the two situations; it's one thing to provide an opposing point of view, but quite another to try to prevent people you don't approve of making theirs heard.

    The BBC report also describes the paedophile book as offering "advice to help them abide by the law". I, for one, am all in favour of paedophiles abiding by the law; it sounds much more appealing than the alternative.

  • Comment number 5.

    Your comment "And the irony is that it's the web which has made so visible an obscure book which might years ago have been passed around furtively among a few dozen men in some American city. Now it's the web and its global community of users which may force Amazon to change its mind about censorship" obviously infers that pedophelia is an 'American thing'. Why not "passed around furtively among a few dozen men in London?". After all Gary Glitter wasn't from the US.

  • Comment number 6.

    Maybe the author and everyone who has bought the book should get a visit from the police. I suspect writing or buying a book such as this would count as "reasonable cause" for a search warrant.

  • Comment number 7.

    _Ewan_ the author certainly purports to offer "advice to help them abide by the law" and I too was inclined not to pre-judge the matter on the basis of mass hysteria. So I read it (see review mentioned above).

    I can now tell you that it also contains justification for breaking the law, advice on how to continue to perpetrate criminal acts while avoiding prosecution, and passages which can only be described as pornographic. I'm sure it says much more beyond what my nausea would allow.

  • Comment number 8.

    Thanks jettro_hellier, that's all I need now, to be pre-judged as a paedophile and have my home searched. Some leap to hysterical reaction while others think critically. Let's hope the critical thinkers win the day.

  • Comment number 9.

    Welcome to free speech, my friends. It may not include things you particularly like.

  • Comment number 10.

    Billysugger: Would it be a defence for someone to claim that they were downloading a bomb makers handbook out of technical interest "Honest I don't want to make bomb I just want to know how to!". Or race hate material "I just wanted to see if they had a justifiable reason for hating black people". Or child porn "I just to see what all the fuss was about".

    On reading the report regarding what this particular book was about, I didn't feel the need to download it to find out if it was a bad as I thought it might be. The issue is not whether this particular book is a sordid piece of trash, but whether Amazon should be held responsible for helping making available.

    I am assuming, given that the book was on the Amazon Kindle, that you just downloaded the free sample that they make available rather than the whole thing. Additionally given your disgust at the content, I am sure you have now ensured it is deleted from your device, computer and your Kindle archive.

  • Comment number 11.

    Freedom comes with responsibility Mark - 'I defend the right for people to say anything' does NOT hold here. This book is blatently an encouragemnent to participate in the vilest of crimes against children. Amazon are aiding horrific crimes here not celebrating free speech

  • Comment number 12.

    Those who are complaining to Amazon need to take some time to think this through. This is a book that:

    a) States it's aim is to help keep things legal
    b) Identifies purchasers as potential paedophiles

    It is:
    1) Possibly helping to prevent illegal child abuse (presumably therefore helping someone with these desires to satisfy them in non-abusive ways)
    2) Identifying potential paedophiles to the authorities.

    It's the single biggest gift to the police and child protection services in decades!

    I am all for Amazon marketing this book. Spread the word far and wide about it! Just as long as that cosy little relationship with data sharing with the authorities that the infamous Google case exposed in the Bush era, remains in full use on this item!

  • Comment number 13.

    Billysugger

    Thanks for confirming what the book is actually like. I don't feel the need to read your review, but it is good to know that the criticism of this book is well justified. So often mass hysteria clouds the truth (particularly in the USA), and what could have been a book on how paedophiles can manage to stay within the law/ tame their urges - which would probably be a good thing, could have got censored because the word 'paedophile' outrages the masses.

    I imagine the main reason for Amazon not restricting the book is probably because they don't want to bother themselves with the costs/time of reading all the books that get put on there. And why should they?

    As for the censorship issue - well that a difficult one. I completely disagree with censorship, and as such this kind of material is likely to fall through the cracks. But if it encourages criminal activity, which is a crime in itself, then it should be pulled on that basis.

    I would say that TechCrunch are much more the evil party in the story. As someone else said, if they really cared about it they would have had a quiet word with Amazon who could have pulled the book and no one would have known about it. Blowing the story open like they did is just typical of the media that wants stories above all else - giving this book a platform.

  • Comment number 14.

    jettro_heller: unless proscribed by law, and if the intent to treat the material in an appropriate manner for research purposes is clearly established publicly in advance, as it was in this case, then I am perfectly content with it.

    In the UK there are laws proscribing the procurement of information (regarding explosives) liable to be of use to terrorists, so that would be out. It is an offence to promote racial hatred, but I know of no law which would make it an offence to procure or download it. It is an offence to posses obscene images, including paedophillic pornographic images. As far as I am aware, the possession of this text is not proscribed.

    But now I've read it I can justify my claim that by promoting it, Amazon may well be guilty of criminal conspiracy. They may ignore hundreds of outraged online rants, but it's harder to ignore a realistic threat of prosecution.

    As a citizen of good standing and character, and one who understands the harm peddling this trash can have, once I was satisfied that I had both judged the material soundly and prepared notes allowing me to convince others of both its depravity and illegality, then indeed I erased every record of it which I could access.

    Be a legal pedant if you like. I found ABSOLUTELY NO OTHER INFORMED COMMENT on this material which could persuade critical and fair minded people that it should be withdrawn. If you think I have broken the law, then message me on my blog and I will be content to defend my actions to the proper authorities.

  • Comment number 15.

    re above, for jettro_heller now read CCBaxter. Further ID changes I'm sure you can track by content. :-)

  • Comment number 16.

    Billysugger - it would appear that you would have nothing to fear from a visit from the police, and are downloading this material as a social service. Sacrificing your own mental well being to protect others from downloading the book in the mistaken belief that "The Pedophile's Guide to Love and Pleasure: a Child-lover's Code of Conduct" would be anything other than loathsome.

    However, may I suggest you would be in the significant minority with regard to purchasers of this book. I am sure that with a title so obviously aimed at practicing paedophiles, visits from the police to the purchasers would net some citizens of less good standing than yourself.

    If I was to pay a large amount of cash into my bank account (a perfectly legal activity) I would expect to receive a visit from the authorities checking that the cash had come from legitimate activities. Equally, if I was to purchase books of this type, I should not be surprised to get a visit to check that I am only purchasing to prove to myself that they really are as disgusting as they appear.

    It was not suggested that buying this book makes a person a paedophile, in the same way as having large amounts of cash does not make a person a drug dealer. However, if I was a police officer, I believe it would give me reasonable cause to investigate.

  • Comment number 17.

    Billysugger, neither I nor Amazon need to do more than read the title of the book and see the nature of the animals supporting it (check out the overnight 'trolling' from some twisted US contributors on the Facebook page). You say you understand the harm that comes from 'peddling this trash', but encourage people to read it.

    Amazon defended their selling of this book long after its nature was pointed out to them. Like many others, I am now an ex Amazon customer and will remain so until I see a complete reversal of their standpoint on this issue. I will not (not now, and not ever) support those who defend the furtherance of child abuse.

    @Ewan: the BBC report did not say that the book offered help to paedophiles on staying within the law. They report that the author claimed that, which is hugely different.

  • Comment number 18.

    Apologies if the change of ID has confused anyone. When the BBC changed its login method I was forced to choose a new name as it couldn't find my existing one. Now it randomly picks one of the two each time I sign on.

  • Comment number 19.

    I've been buying from Amazon for several years and just logged into my customer account. I decided to add a caption to my profile saying "I would like to state clearly here that I will not be using Amazon for any more purchases while they are still offering for sale "The Pedophile’s Guide to Love and Pleasure".". I entered it into the text field for the caption, pressed the Save button and, guess what? Amazon returned a message to say that "The text entered may not contain profanity". Double standards or what?

    Being of a suspicious nature, I then followed the TechCrunch link to the Guide just to make sure that the book is available for sale - this returned a message saying that no such page exists on Amazon. Hmm. I then searched Amazon for Pedophile's Guide and the first hit was the Kindle book that TC is reporting on. However, when I clicked on the link, I again got the no such page exists message. Double checking less than five minutes later, and you can't even find the Kindle book any more.

    Looks like this campaign has been successful and the book has been removed from Amazon. However, Amazon doesn't actually have an effective news process to report this with, so it looks as if this story will run for quite some time.

  • Comment number 20.

    If anyone looking at jihadist material on the internet is bound to attract interest from the police, (should they find out), why not people buying a paedophile 'hand book' such as the one in question, for whatever purported reason? There's a very fine line between curiosity and intent.

    Lest we forget, not very long ago there was some celebrity actor who was found guilty and jailed for viewing indecent images of children on the internet, which he said he did to research a part for his stage show. How ridiculous! Glad the jury saw through that.

  • Comment number 21.

    @Barbaratw

    Free speech is precisely that; the right to say pretty much anything. What you're talking about is selective censorship based on things you find morally reprehensible.

    So when you say 'Freedom' what exactly do you mean?

  • Comment number 22.

    Dear Rory,

    Google's mission is to organize the world's information and make it universally accessible and useful. I have a bit of distrust of such ambitious missions. Making information accessible is a good thing, but organizing the world's information, it means controlling all information on the planet. We all know that information today is worth more than money.

  • Comment number 23.

    Mark - Does freedom include the right to be a criminal? we're not talking about morally reprehensive here but the fact that society has decided through the laws of the land that any action encouraging abuse of children is a criminal act.

    Children's rights here have more importance than the right to publish and encourage child abuse...don't they?

  • Comment number 24.

    @Barbaratw

    Which I think is fine and I actually agree. It's not free speech though is it?

    Incidentally, society decides what's right or wrong largely based on what it finds morally reprehensible. It's one of the reasons why the age of consent varies from country and isn't absolute.

  • Comment number 25.

    Trying to introduce morality to the web is like trying to control the weather.

    The whole concept is a racist's/misogynist's/jihadist's/paedophile's paradise, for the same reason it's so useful for us normal people - its freedom, universality, and scope.

    I think changing people's attitudes, and fighting their bigotry with intelligence, is the answer, rather than the admittedly very tempting option of shutting them down.

  • Comment number 26.

    Amazon have a choice to make - its their decision and their business that will prosper or fall as a result.
    Personally I dislike censorship and even though the book is objectionable, there might be a few positives. For example, having the bank details and addresses of people that buy books like this...

  • Comment number 27.

    There has been quite a bit of outrage about this online but what I don't think people understand is that this was published with the Kindle Self-Publishing system. It is obviously very easy for anyone to publish, I don't think Amazon even reviews anything. There were obvious spelling errors in the title of the book.

    Amazon removed the book within a day.

    Further controversy remains about other titles such as this one:

    http://bit.ly/Molest

  • Comment number 28.

    "Free speech" has always been, and will always remain, an inaccurate title in a civilised society. The right to say whatever you wish is tempered by the reality that some of the things you say will carry consequences ... even if that consequence is only to offend other people.

    Something Western society seems to care less and less about is the simply reality that rights carry with them responsibilities. We enjoy the right to vote for our government, which carries with it a responsibility to actually use it instead of sitting on our hands on polling day.

    We have a right to "free speech", but we must take responsibility for what we say and, where we choose not to exercise that responsibility whether recklessly or to make what we believe to be a valid but unpalettable point, accept that there are sometimes consequences.

    The right to say absolutely anything we wish without consequence is actually a recipe for anarchy, not freedom. Civilised societies function on the basis that all members of that society agree to curtail certain "freedoms" for the benefit of the whole.

    It is up to all of us to try and make sure that there is an appropriate balance between the right to say whatever we want, and the responsibility to do so in a manner that is fair, reasonable and justified.

  • Comment number 29.

    I find the issue of freedom or speech etc very interesting, I advocate freedom of speech and thought, however I don't have to listen to, read it, view it or agree with it. I would also agree that with freedom comes responsibility, and it seems that the majority of people find the book objectionable (and from what I have gleaned from this forum, rightfully so) and therefore have decided for themselves and acted accordingly. Surely that is what a civilised society should do, it's not top down censorship but choices made by consensus and that has to be positive. Not some kind of internet vigilantism, but social responsibility?
    I would also suggest that Amazon and Google have to accept some kind of responsibility, they may claim be morally neutral, however, should I, for example be aware there was bullying / harassment / abuse etc. going on in my work place and do nothing about it, wouldn't that make me knowingly complicit?
    The question is am I my brothers keeper and the answer is a resounding yes.

  • Comment number 30.

    usreader #5.

    "..comment "And the irony is that it's the web which has made so visible an obscure book which might years ago have been passed around furtively among a few dozen men in some American city. Now it's the web and its global community of users which may force Amazon to change its mind about censorship" obviously infers that pedophelia is an 'American thing'. Why not "passed around furtively among a few dozen men in London?"."

    dear usreader, "pedophelia" is a love of feet, not my thing personally, but not illegal AFAIK.

    the difference may lie in our different legal systems; in the US of A your constitution confers rights onto people like those behind NAMBLA, very different in the UK. you're correct though saying that paedophiles don't only exist in the US of A, and minors need to be protected from sexual predation all around the globe.

  • Comment number 31.

    dcacooper #28.

    "the simply reality that rights carry with them responsibilities."

    hear, hear!!

  • Comment number 32.

    Tech companies really do try and get away with it!

    If you are responsible for making information accessible, then you are responsible for the information.

    In Amazon's case it is really simple - they hold the information on their servers and take a profit from it's sale (on Kindle that is from 30% to 65% of the purchase price). You can't make money from something then say you have no responsibility for it.

    Amazon have removed the book, but to be honest, they have to be proactively responsible for their output, not reactively.

    With search engines, this is less clear since they are not responsible for the publication of the material on their servers, but do index it.

    I think there is a moral responsibility here, however. When a huge company with tons of resources are in a position to change what is easy to find, then they are being pretty stupid to effectively say "not our problem if thousands of children are being abused." With power comes responsibility. The Google addition of links to Samaritans is a good thing.

    I wonder, however, whether any of this stuff is ever considered on a moral basis, or whether it's effect on profit is considered first.

  • Comment number 33.

    If you are responsible for making information accessible, then you are responsible for the information.

    @Hastings: I don't think I can completely agree to this. For example, on Youtube, if someone uploads a video with illegal content (violence, w/e) and Youtube were directly responsible for the content people upload, they could be sued, which is ridiculous. Of course, Youtube takes down videos like this as soon as they are flagged, because they have a clear(er) policy for content can and cannot be uploaded. Amazon really needs to follow suit here. A policy of 'offensive' material (with no definition) leaves them open to situations like the one that just happened. They can not be held directly responsible for user uploaded content (this has been ruled before), but their customers have no obligation to buy from them. It would be arrogance to not listen, and arrogance kills companies.


    -

    About the corporate responsibility argument in general, it is generally impossible to reach a consensus on either side. You may want a company to stay green, not use sweatshop later, not sell books that relate to illegal acts, not *insert your moral dilemma here*, but, and I'm playing the devils advocate here, in the end, corporations have an obligation to make money. And if part of your retirement portfolio is in stock of a company, you sure don't want that company to fail..

    -

    as a side note,

    What bothers me more is that this book ended up in the top 100..

  • Comment number 34.

    Matt

    Actually, part of the reason for the terms and conditions that YouTube impose when you upload something is because they CAN be sued. For instance, Google had to be very fast on their feet when it looked like they were going to lose all the copyright cases against YouTube.

    Their argument is that the system has gotten so huge that it is impossible for them to police. This is a bit of a cop out, really, since they are the ones that have allowed it to grow so much. This did not happen by accident; they have had to spend millions on growing the infrastructure to cope with the demand.

    The logical argument which has been applied to every other publisher since publishing began, out there is that if you cannot cope, then don't do it.

    I suppose what this is really about is that people in power failed to realise that the internet is not actually any different from any other form of media system; be that TV, radio, print of banners behind an aircraft. It may be technically different and offer up geographical challenges, but it still basically is about one person putting out information for another person to consume.

    Societies, through their political systems, have to decide whether they want to regulate that or not and to what level. You will still get an underground in the same way as some newsagents used to stock illegal porn under the counter, but that does not mean that you cannot regulate - just that it is difficult.

    I have to say, I have very mixed feelings about this. Sometimes I wish there was two discreet internets - one that is highly regulated and policed and one that is more like now, difficult to use and less regulated. My mother, 87, wants to have broadband installed, and I really wish there was a way I could connect her up which guaranteed that she was never exposed to anything that would upset her and would not even be aware that this was a possibility. Actually, I would rather like that for myself, to be honest.

 

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