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Google, Amazon and the end of web innocence?

Rory Cellan-Jones | 09:17 UK time, Friday, 3 December 2010

For the giant web firms born on America's west coast, one principle has always been sacrosanct: commitment to freedom of expression.

Screenshot of Wikileaks website

 

That's been accompanied by an insistence that they are technology platforms, not media businesses, and so can't be held responsible for the actions of those who use their services.

Last month I noted that two of those giants, Amazon and Google, were diluting that pure stance in the face of commercial and political realities and now it seems to be happening again.

First, Amazon, the company you probably know for selling books and which also has a large-scale service for hosting websites. One of these had been the Wikileaks horde of leaked US diplomatic cables - but no longer, prompting suggestions that Amazon was bowing to pressure from American politicians and sparking outrage from some customers who felt that the company was abandoning a commitment to free speech. "Guess I am going to have to find somewhere other than Amazon to do my Christmas shopping," responded one tweeter; Wikileaks' own Twitter feed put it like this: "If Amazon are so uncomfortable with the first amendment they should get out of the business of selling books."

Just as when the online retailer decided to remove a book promoting paedophilia from its virtual shelves, Amazon appears to have realised that a giant American business cannot simply ignore public opinion or political realities. Mind you, it's hard to know exactly what Amazon thinks - I've tried repeatedly over the last 24 hours to speak to the firm, with no success. The company has put out a statement denying that "a government inquiry prompted us not to serve WikiLeaks" and going on:

"Amazon Web Services... does not pre-screen its customers, but it does have terms of service that must be followed. WikiLeaks was not following them."

The second case is Google, where the pressure has come from some within the media industry, angry at what they see as the search engine's amoral stance on copyright infringement. Google has insisted until now that it's not its fault that a search for "Lady Gaga MP3" tends to lead users straight to illegal download sites - it's all down to the mysteries of the algorithm. It's also maintained that its only aim is to give search users exactly what they are seeking.

But over the summer at least one music industry trade body was lobbying Google, in what was apparently a "constructive dialogue", to make it a little harder for users to find pirated material. Now Google has announced a series of measures which it says "will give rightsholders choice and control over the use of their content." Two parts of the announcement appear particularly significant.

Google says it will act to prevent terms that may be connected to piracy appearing in "autocomplete" - so when you start typing "Lady Gaga MP3", the search engine won't automatically suggest "free download" or "torrent". And Google says it will try making authorised content a bit more obvious in search results.

So does this mean the company is tinkering with that sacred algorithm to promote "good" results above "evil" ones? Absolutely not, says Google, and links to sites that illegally host copyright material will still show up in search results.

It does seem likely, though, that when you search for Lady Gaga in future you may find yourself looking at a video leading to an official download service, rather than to a file-sharing site. Is that what users are really seeking?

A few weeks ago the search firm made the number of the Samaritans visible to people searching for terms relating to suicide, a move obviously in the public interest but one that opened the door to pressure for more tinkering.

The innocent days when young web firms could pretend that they were simply agents of free expression based on neutral technology seem to be coming to an end. They have grown up into giant media empires, so they can expect every lobbyist, every politician and every pressure group to want to shape the way they do business.

Comments

  • Comment number 1.

    The web lost it's innocence a long time ago, as soon as the comercial sector realised how much money could be made online. Ive been using Google from day one, but this combined with the net neutrality debate has me looking for another search engine. Any suggestions?

  • Comment number 2.

    Amazon does not have a monopoly on book-vending or web-hosting, and Google does not have a monopoly on searching. If the public are so offended by their actions, there are plenty of other sites on the web they can go to. Typing "search engine" into Google brings up plenty of alternatives (and google itself is only 6th on the page!).

  • Comment number 3.

    The truth always comes out, just like our own politicians with their dodgy expense claims. If their actions were just and honourable, then there would be no story to print. Hilary Clinton wouldn't be ranting about espionage. Politicians in the US like to champion the freedom of speech when they talk about the free world, but look what they are saying about assassinating Julian Assange. The next time we have a Muslim issuing a Fatwa against a free world subject for insulting the prophet Mohamed then the British and the US should have no cause for complain.

  • Comment number 4.

    Rory, I disagree, Amazon have quite rightly said that they removed WikiLeaks because they were breaking the T's & C's by placing information they did not own on the servers. Google are in a similar position, this isn't about the right to free speech, it's about media ownership and the recent legal precedents.

    WikiLeaks are better off being hosted in Europe, away from the hands of the US gov.

  • Comment number 5.

    On the basis of recent events I also decided to completely shun Amazon (web services) for my planned business venture. Apart from the obvious bowing to republican pressure which I find disgusting (and of course it was not the terms and conditions, because that was not an issue until now), what if they ever decide there is something "wrong" with that planned business venture of mine.

    As a genereal note: The idea of keeping secret the things that happen in goverment, lobbyist circles and high finance, for reasons of national security is absolutely ridiculous. So, where is the line for that, who decides which secret is in the interest of national security.

    Its seriously funny that it is anti-communists who fiercly defend their secrecy, as actually what they want is exactly what the UDSSR and other "evil" guys did in the cold war.

    All I can say to those who have a problem with the truth: There is loads of countries that share your view, like China, Russia, some middle eastern states and many more. Just move there and leave us alone to move on into the future.

    Thanks!

  • Comment number 6.

    Companies like Google and Telco's use the "platform" as a means of keeping themselves away from the courts, as does the postman. If they mearly transport the content then they can not be responsible for what the content is.

    But when a company begins to adjust and change what people recieve, does that not show that they are inspecting and/or manipulating the content. Which begs the question..... are they then not responsible for the content?

    If the postman delivers a bomb, they can not be responsible as they did not know it was a bomb.

    If Google delivers users to illegal content and Goggle know it's illegal surely they are responsible.

    It's a slippery slope.....

  • Comment number 7.

    Its about time that these companies did take a moral standpoint. The idea that there is a sudden loss of innocence is naive in itself, considering that the internet is bursting at the seams with pornography. And its not outrageous to recognise simple moral guidelines: taking something that doesn't belong to you without payment to its owner is theft and that having sex with children is a very bad thing indeed. There are no grey areas - its very simple. If these companies think they can pretend its not their problem, well that is naive, immoral even.

  • Comment number 8.

    Exactly, well said Jimmy Brown. Why are all the technology bloggers so on their high horses about justifying massive copyright theft and violent porn as 'freedom of speech?' It's about time Google were made to make changes. I just don't know how they've been allowed to get away with it for so long. And I mean any search engine with a 'neutral' algorithm, not just Google. This enforced change to Google doesn't go anywhere near far enough.
    And as for the discussion about Amazon removing Wikileaks hosting - I'm afraid this is confusing two totally different subjects under one 'freedom of expression' banner. It is not that much of an issue; just as what was was said on Wikileaks was not important - the real news is that the military's secure internet *isn't* secure and all this hot air about freedom of speech implications etc. and who's been offended by what statement is all trivia - designed to detract from the *real* issue - the embarrassing revelation that the United States' secure systems aren't as secure as they claim. If Amazon have secretly been told to unhost Wikileaks, then this is a bad thing, agreed. But that is a totally separate issue to the one of Google and copyright infringement!


  • Comment number 9.

    This story in the NYT https://goo.gl/LspiQ led to an amazingly fast response from Google https://goo.gl/GsDBY which https://goo.gl/l4nfF has generated a lot of debate amongst the professionals in Search - not much of it favorable.

  • Comment number 10.

    I would just be delighted if when I buy a book or something off Amazon I was not indunated 3 times a day with emails suggesting I buy this that or the other as well. I am scared stiff to buy anything from Amazon now. If I want this that or the other, I go look for a competitive deal and buy it. I don't want Amazon filling my inbox with rubbish. The likely outcome is you end up ingoring all Amazon mail, bit like chucking the gas bill with all the advertising bumph the gas board send trying to sell you stuff you have no need of or intention of buying.

  • Comment number 11.

    @ Jimmy Brown

    "If these companies think they can pretend its not their problem, well that is naive, immoral even."

    Should a bus driver be responsible if they drive a shoplifter to a shopping centre? Perhaps bus drivers shouldn't let any shifty characters onto the bus incase they steal something?

    I find it strange that you say 'there are no grey areas'. You are just pushing your own morality as though it were fact, when it is not.

  • Comment number 12.

    that analogy's rubbish jizzlington, the comparison just doesn't work. but to go with it for the moment, if some tea leaf got on the bus, wearing a stripy shirt, carrying a big bag with SWAG written on the side of it, asked where the pickings were good and the bus driver said, well I noticed mrs jarvis left her back door unlocked this morning that might be worth a try, or said, its OK mate I'll sell these books on how to abuse children for you, there would be a moral responsibility. And yes I believe some things are tthat clearly defined.

  • Comment number 13.

    "Should a bus driver be responsible if they drive a shoplifter to a shopping centre? Perhaps bus drivers shouldn't let any shifty characters onto the bus incase they steal something?"

    How would a bus driver know someone was a shoplifter? On the other hand if the driver saw someone carrying a gun, I would have thought informing the police as soon as it was safe would be reasonable.

    If you know something is illegal it is wrong to assist its dissemination. If google can provide warnings about malicious sites why not about illegal sites.

  • Comment number 14.

    David Lee wrote:

    "Politicians in the US like to champion the freedom of speech when they talk about the free world, but look what they are saying about assassinating Julian Assange."

    Wikileaks isn't about whistle-blowing or good intentions. Wikileaks is targeting and attacking America. They are well beyond simply being an anti-American organization. At any other time in America's history such an attack would have been seen as an act of war and its response would have been in accordance with that view.

    And if you are so concerned about "freedom of speech" how about you start talking about places like China, Russia, Cuba, etc, where your opinion on the government can get you persecuted, imprisoned and killed. I don't see reporters, artists, and writers being killed in America for speaking out against the government.

    "The next time we have a Muslim issuing a Fatwa against a free world subject for insulting the prophet Mohamed then the British and the US should have no cause for complain."

    If someone draws a cartoon of Mohamed do you actually think it is rational and civilized to issue a so-called "Fatwa" on such a person? Do you actually see that as the same as what Wikileaks is doing?

    And if you see it as wrong how is it logical to support that wrong to attack something that you also see as wrong. That makes no sense.


    amigiac wrote:

    "WikiLeaks are better off being hosted in Europe, away from the hands of the US gov."

    Where I am sure they would find many anti-Americans hosts to tend to them.

    cchange wrote:

    "On the basis of recent events I also decided to completely shun Amazon (web services) for my planned business venture. Apart from the obvious bowing to republican pressure which I find disgusting"

    You don't know what you are talking about. The condemnation in America over Wikileaks is comes fron the left and the right!

    "As a genereal note: The idea of keeping secret the things that happen in goverment, lobbyist circles and high finance, for reasons of national security is absolutely ridiculous. So, where is the line for that, who decides which secret is in the interest of national security."

    Certainly not an anti-American foreigner clearly out to attack and damage America!

    "Its seriously funny that it is anti-communists who fiercly defend their secrecy, as actually what they want is exactly what the UDSSR and other "evil" guys did in the cold war."

    Oh really? So when exactly did America ship off millions of its own people to labor camps and mental institutions for simply sharing an opinion the government didn't like? I must have missed that in my old age.

    "All I can say to those who have a problem with the truth: There is loads of countries that share your view, like China, Russia, some middle eastern states and many more. Just move there and leave us alone to move on into the future."

    No, you move there! Then maybe you could learn to understand and appreciate how good you really have it in the West!

    littletenter wrote:

    "I would just be delighted if when I buy a book or something off Amazon I was not indunated 3 times a day with emails suggesting I buy this that or the other as well."

    I buy from Amazon all the time and I don't get such things. If you are capable of posting to these forums then you should also be capable of opting out of such offers. Simple.

    Ian Bradbury wrote:

    "But when a company begins to adjust and change what people recieve, does that not show that they are inspecting and/or manipulating the content. Which begs the question..... are they then not responsible for the content?

    If Google delivers users to illegal content and Goggle know it's illegal surely they are responsible."

    Exactly. Simple logic that too many people today have trouble with.



  • Comment number 15.

    There have always been leaks from government since the time of well governments. This issue is one of scale.

    Now that most information is digital it is inevitable that both corporates and governments alike will have their information exposed, copied and distributed.

    Its perfectly simple for lowly paid in or outsourced employees to grab vast quantities of information - whether its email or documents. It just cannot be prevented.

    Only corporates or governments that reinstate the typewriter and paper will be able to avoid this outcome regardless of how secretive or authoritarian they are. Once its digital - its very hard to stop it getting out.


  • Comment number 16.

    Commitment to freedom of expression should remain as sancrosanct as possible.
    Platforms like "Google" cannot be expected to monitor every "freedom of expression" input, though they should be receptive to actioning complaints re hate documents and the like.
    If Amazon and Google are diluting this pure stance in the face of commercial and political realities, then there is a danger that freedom of expression is being eroded by the powers that be, and we who value freedom of expression should do our best not to tolerate such limintations.
    Wikileaks are either true or false, likely they are true; yet, they do not tell us anything that we of common sense did not know beforehand - like the United States doing Yemen's bombing.
    I disagree with the reply from "Amazon Web Services... does not pre-screen its customers, but it does have terms of service that must be followed. WikiLeaks was not following them."
    Wikileaks is something the public has a right to know, or at least has a right to an explanation re the terms that Wikileaks was not following so that these reasons can be debated. So, Amazon, what are the terms in breach?
    I agree 100% with the writer who said: "If Amazon are so uncomfortable with the first amendment they should get out of the business of selling books."
    As for books promoting paedophilia, what are these doing on Amazon? I always thought that paedophiles had their own sources. I think most users of Amaazon would not support books promoting paedophilia, and what sort of paedophile would purchase material so blatantly on a public site? You'd think the enforcement agencies against paedophilia would be most happy to pursue the matter, and not be anxious to remove these books.
    Google has insisted until now that it's not its fault that a search for "Lady Gaga MP3" tends to lead users straight to illegal download sites. It's also maintained that its only aim is to give search users exactly what they are seeking. Illegal downloads? Pirated material? Surely "google" does not want to be a part of this! It's not legal!
    Google says it will act to prevent terms that may be connected to piracy appearing in "autocomplete" - so when you start typing "Lady Gaga MP3", the search engine won't automatically suggest "free download"
    Atta way to go!
    In this type of business a little bit of common sense can go a long way.

  • Comment number 17.

    'Google, Amazon and...'

    I read that as 'God, Amazon and...' (unconscious freudian?)

    Sorry Rory, quick question,

    Is it possible to broadcast live video to other (subscribing) IPhone* users using an IPhone, is there an app for that ?

    (*IPhone = Android, smartphone etc.)

  • Comment number 18.

    It is rather easy to sign up and host on Amazon Web Services, but why wikileaks thought for even a second that somehow their content fulfilled AWS T&C is byond me.

    Lets see, they openly admit publishing content that was stolen from a government and they think some how that gives them ownership?

    This is so straight forward that all the arguments above do seem ludicrous.

    And it is not as if Amazon would not notice - suddenly one website is getting 1000 times the traffic of anyone else? It is like trying to hide a commercial airport. You can put fencing all around it, but people tend to notice the odd Jumbo Jet flying in and out.

 

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