Is Google not giving us the whole picture?
There is no question that we are in the age of the Internet. We get our news, listen to music, talk to friends, and SO much more all by sitting down at a computer. A hot topic in the news these days–one that’s pretty scary to think about–is the possible loss of Net Neutrality. For those that aren’t familiar with Net Neutrality, it is a law that prohibits the discrimination of any website in any way. So, basically, big corporation-owned websites can’t have an advantage over personal websites, blogs, etc. The idea behind the law is to keep the Internet as free (in every sense of the word) as possible. However, big companies want to tier the Internet so that there are two streams: one fast and controlled by them that you have to pay to use, and one slow. How will companies accomplish this? Well, there’s been talk of companies joining up so that by “subscribing” to them you get everything you could want on the Internet–for a price. For example, CNN could pair up with Time Warner Cable, Verizon Wireless, and Google. Those that are against Net Neutrality think that corporate “bundles” would be a good thing since they could get all of their services from one vendor, but I’m very skeptical of the super-corporation idea. I’m well-read in science fiction. I know how that would end.
Now, it has recently come to my attention that Google may be neglecting Net Neutrality a little bit. I’ve noticed that company sites usually appear in the top few hits in a Google search. In addition, YouTube videos can now be “promoted” by paying a sum of money. (Who owns YouTube? Oh right, Google does.) Don’t get me wrong. I’ve been a supporter of Google for a long time, and I know I can’t full-out accuse them of breaking the law. BUT I have made these observations that, to me, aren’t in line with the spirit of the Internet. Check out these videos that show the #1 hit that comes up for each letter of the alphabet with Google Instant:
So, what does this mean? Firstly, it’s clear that popularity is a factor here. Sites that get the most hits come up first. That makes sense, but that means Google searches are now based on popularity instead of relevancy. Secondly, as you probably saw in the second video, region plays a role in determining the top hits. I don’t see that as something to be concerned about, because if searches are going to be based on popularity you might as well see what’s popular where you live. Don’t lose sight of the main issue, though: By seeing the most popular sites first, people are more likely to click on them. That increases their popularity, reducing the chance of an independent site ever getting discovered. Also, based on popularity’s standards, there’s no reason why a company can’t pay Google to bump their site up the ranks. People on YouTube are already doing it.
I believe that abolishing Net Neutrality would be a form of censorship. If this happened, it would affect people’s ability to access information they want. Curious about the issue of censorship, I (MS) asked a local librarian (BF) what she thought:
MS: What is censorship?
BF: Censorship is an act, by a governing or other authoritative body, of preventing or restricting people’s access to information in any format, in whole or in part, and/or the suppression of free speech as it is constitutionally defined and guaranteed.
MS: How does it affect a library? People?
BF: Censorship can be particularly complex in a library setting, I think, because there are a lot of different ways it can rear its ugly head. This includes things like: Individuals and groups attempting to get books and other resources removed from a library because they find them personally objectionable. The problem here, of course, is that while a person who is offended by a particular library resource is free to pass it over and not check it out, once it is removed from the library, the person who isn’t offended by it and needs/wants the information it provides is out of luck. Most libraries have policies that make clear their selection process for materials and hopefully have in place a clear process for what to do should one of these challenges arise. Depending upon the politics of a community and how supportive people both within the organiation and without are of the library’s mission to provide free and equal access to its patrons, the outcome of these processes can really vary…
…one of the other big issues that I think libraries face in terms of censorship is Internet filtering, which libraries obviously handle in different ways. The Children’s Internet Protection Act (CIPA) http://www.fcc.gov/cgb/consumerfacts/cipa.html
places restrictions on library’s ability to get a cheaper rate for Internet service if they don’t filter, so many do. We public libraries here in Maine are lucky, because the state government supplements money that we lose by not complying with CIPA, so a lot of Maine libraries…don’t filter. Of course, it’s always a tricky wicket, since there is definitely stuff on the Internet that raises cause for concern and at a library… I still feel it is much preferrable to using a computer filter, which by it’s very nature sometimes blocks people from obtaining perfectly legitimate information.
MS: As a librarian, what is your opinion of censorship?
BF: It has no place in a free, democratic society. We have to be prepared to defend free speech in all its forms, even (and probably most importantly) when the view/book/material we’re defending may not reflect our own values.
MS: And…what are your views on Net Neutrality? Would you compare an Internet without Net Neutrality to a library that doesn’t have censored/banned books?
BF: I am emphatically in favor of continued Net Neutrality. I don’t know if I’d compare a tiered Internet to a library that censors or bans books exactly, but I think that the entire idea of establishing two different streams, one faster for those who can pay and one slower for those who can’t, endangers the principle of equal access/use that at present the Internet largely upholds. And since I suppose a library that censors or bans books also endangers that principle, I guess there is some similarity, but in the case of a library, I feel more like censorship serves to deprive people of their right to information and in the case of a tiered Internet, it seems like the issue is more the limiting of speech for those who are poorer. Both definitely seem fundamentally undemocratic to me, though.
I see Net Neutrality as something that should remain sacrosanct. We do so much on the Internet. To have everything we do censored, to be presented with corporate-created false dilemmas, would be undemocratic. I’m anxious to see how this all plays out…