May 22, 2006
Is Left-Leaning Google Censoring Right-Leaning Websites?By Noel Sheppard and Marc Sheppard
Something frighteningly ominous has been happening on the Internet lately: Google, without any prior explanation or notice, has been terminating its News relationship with conservative e—zines and web journals.
At first blush, one can easily ignore such business decisions by the most powerful company on the Internet as being routine. However, on closer examination, such behavior could give one relatively small (when measured by the size of its workforce) technology corporation a degree of political might that frankly dwarfs even its current financial prowess.
It's Not So Easy Being A Conservative E—Zine
As reported by NewsBusters, the most recent occurrence of this unexplained phenomenon was Friday, May 19, when Frank Salvato, proprietor of The New Media Journal, realized that his content that day hadn't been disseminated at Google News as it had been on a daily basis since he reached an agreement with the search engine in September 2005.
After sending the Google Help Desk a query concerning the matter, Salvato was informed that there had been complaints of "hate speech" at his website, and as a result, The New Media Journal would no longer be part of Google News. As evidence of his offense, the Google Team supplied Salvato with links to three recent op—eds published by his contributing writers, all coincidentally about radical Islam and its relation to terrorism.
Unfortunately, this was not the first conservative e—zine to be terminated in such a fashion. On March 29, Rusty Shackleford, owner of The Jawa Report, received a similar e—mail message as Salvato informing him that:
For those unfamiliar, The Jawa Report focuses a great deal of attention on terrorist issues and how they relate to radical Islam.
Two weeks after Jawa was cut from Google News, Jim Sesi's MichNews.com was banished on April 12. In Sesi's case, the three pieces provided as examples of 'hate speech' were articles by conservative writer J. Grant Swank, Jr., all about — you guessed it — radical Islam and terrorism.
See a trend here?
As a sidebar, the NewsBusters article that first broke this story on May 19 cannot be found by doing a Google News search even though other recent articles by NewsBusters can.
Smells Like Conservative Intolerance
To be sure, there have been complaints in the past from conservative bloggers that Google seems to have dubious requirements to be a part of its News Crawl. In February 2005, Michelle Malkin wrote of the difficulties she was having becoming part of Google News. At roughly the same time, Charles Johnson of Little Green Footballs also complained about not being able to curry Google's favor.
Yet, in the current instance, what is indeed odd is that some of the supposedly offensive content is still available at Google News even if some of the publishers aren't. Arlene Peck's 'How Has Islam Enriched Your Life?' is still being promoted by Google News at InfoIsrael.net even though it is no longer linked by Google News to The New Media Journal.
The same is true of Barbara Stock's 'Islam is as Islam Does,' which can still be found via Google News at Renew America. And, Amil Imani's 'Islam: A False Religion' can still be found through Google News at Think and Ask.
As such, the three articles that appalled Google News to an extent that necessitated ties between it and The New Media Journal be severed can still be found at other sites by accessing Google News.
That doesn't make much sense, does it?
Enter The Paperless Newspaper
To better understand the hypocrisy here, a little background concerning Google technology is required. When Google News launched its Beta Release Site in April 2002, it introduced to the world a new paradigm in information delivery. Its mission: To construct a totally unbiased news engine, based on a principle of human nonintervention, fully automated both in its gathering and editing of news.
Google begins the process via conventional methods of aggregating news from sources worldwide, launching programs known as News Crawlers. Unlike its cousin the Web Crawler, a News Crawler is highly specialized in that it harvests information from a table of predefined news sites. This targeted approach makes for a distinctively agile transaction, allowing the crawl to be efficient and swift. This celerity is a vital attribute of a 'news' crawler, as data refreshment needs to take place at short, regular intervals in order to assure the inclusion of 'breaking news.'
What distinguishes Google's system from its competitors is that captured plaintext descriptions, links, and, where available, images, are then stored in Google's mammoth database, where they are indexed and ranked on an up—to—the—minute citation relevance scale by proprietary real—time artificial intelligence algorithms without any decisions from human editors. This method, in theory, provides everyone using Google's search engine with the best coverage for each story they seek out, while shielding Google from any potential claims of bias.
The Results Speak For Themselves
Obviously, the results have been stellar. Google has quickly moved to the forefront of all things Internet. According to the April 2006 Nielsen/NetRatings report, 49 percent of all searches conducted in the U.S. in March 2006 were carried out on Google. This is an astounding market share that continues to grow. In addition, a recent study by Hitwise ranked Google News as the fifth most visited news website behind Yahoo, the Weather Channel, MSNBC, and CNN, clearly making it a growing force in news aggregation.
This penetration has given the company unprecedented influence on society. Appearing on the first page of any word search result list all but assures higher hit rates, which equates to higher revenues for e—tailers as well as brick and mortar retailers using the web to drive traffic, and more reads for news and opinion providers.
In fact, Google ranking can actually be a determining factor in the success and, perhaps, very viability of online business ventures, especially to companies with limited or no domain name recognition. This reality has given rise to a cottage industry that offers enterprises measures to improve their standings. These Search Engine Optimization companies make use of approved and, sometimes, dubious, techniques to coerce better page rankings and, thereby, superior public exposure.
Ghosts In The Machine
With this much influence and with so much at stake, challenges are inevitable. A lawsuit has been filed in U.S. District Court in San Jose, California, by Kinderstart.com, which seeks to prove that Google has become an "essential facility' to business, and that its arbitrary manner of banning sites from its search results represents anticompetitive behavior.
Maybe more important, when it comes to the dissemination of news, if any aggregator — be it Google, Yahoo, MSN, etc. — is creating arbitrary rules to determine what will be accessible on its pages, the potential for bias in what gets reported rears its ugly little head.
In the case of the aforementioned conservative e—zines — as well as the inaccessibility of the May 19 NewsBusters article on this subject at Google News — it appears that a human element is involved in making such decisions that is overruling an intentionally and necessarily impartial algorithm.
Is Your Internet News Service Fair and Balanced?
Few people with an above room temperature intelligence quotient question the existence of bias in the media, although there is great debate about the slant. However, it is conceivable that few folks have considered the possibility of Internet news aggregators possessing such partiality, and, maybe more important, the ramifications.
In the case of Google, there is some evidence that its employees lean strongly to the left. According to a February 2005 USA Today article on the subject:
The article stated that of the over $200,000 Google employees gave to federal candidates in 2004, '98% went to Democrats, the biggest share among top tech donors.' And, with a largely successful public stock offering making 'scores of millionaires among [Google's] 3,000 workers,'
Potentially more telling, a May 15 'Washington Prowler' piece at The American Spectator disclosed a link between Google and the ultra—left wing MoveOn.org:
Beyond this, Google appears intimately tied to former vice president and potential 2008 Democratic presidential candidate Al Gore. It is no secret that Gore is a senior advisor to Google, a position that garnered him a sizable number of shares according to Fox News political analyst Susan Estrich. On May 19's The Big Story, Estrich discussed with host John Gibson Gore's connection with Google, and how the wealth generated from the shares he owns in the Internet behemoth could give him enough money to finance his own presidential campaign.
This relationship goes further. According to a recent Wired magazine article about Gore, he is extremely close to Google's CEO Eric Schmidt who 'supported Gore's 2000 presidential campaign.' Moreover, in April 2005, Google partnered with Gore's cable channel, Current.
Googling Past The Graveyard
Certainly, there is nothing new about politicians getting in bed with billionaires, and vice versa. However, in this case, if the political leanings and proclivities of the world's largest online information engine — as well as likely the number one disseminator of 'new media' content — begin impacting its policies, America may be on the precipice of an even ghastlier problem than journalists, editors, and news producers allowing their political dogma to interfere with the impartiality of their reports.
Without question — and taking a cue from Kinderstart.com — this juggernaut named Google has become an 'essential facility' to news seekers. In an interview with The Poynter Institute, Barry Parr of Jupiter Research discussed the findings of his company's September 2005 study into demographic preferences for news gathering online. Mr. Parr states that portals like Google, Yahoo, and MSN 'have become the second—most—used news medium by young people.'
Moreover, to new media providers like e—zines and web journals, referrals from Google News can comprise 20 percent or more of their unique reads in a given day, which is the bread and butter for determining current and future ad revenue.
With that in mind, how much power does a company that disseminates almost half of the country's word search results command over the opinions of our growing population, and what protections exist against abuses of such overreaching power?
How does such a company put itself in the position of grand arbiter over what is and what is not 'hate speech,' or content otherwise objectionable?
And, doesn't this obvious gray area give such a company the unilateral ability to squelch opinions it doesn't agree with just by applying such a vague moniker to what might be an infinitesimally small percentage of an e—zine or web journal's content?
As comforting as the mission statement of unbiased reporting driven by algorithm rather than opinion may sound on paper, the truth is that, with all 'approved' news sources contained in a single table, team Google retains complete editorial authority over the parents of the information to which they give birth.
One touch of a key, and, poof: To the Google World, that news site no longer exists!
Regrettably, neither do the facts and opinions contained therein.
Noel Sheppard is a contributing writer for the Business & Media Institute, as well as contributing editor for the Media Research Center's NewsBusters.org. Marc Sheppard is a business owner, software developer, and writer residing on New York's Long Island. They welcome your feedback to Noel and Mark.