Google and Amazon: Morality and the web
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.