Friday, October 01, 2004

Has Google Lost Its Innocence?

Google seems to have been put under the spotlight recently for blocking certain feeds for their news service to China. Not a good idea for someone like Google to do. Bear with me while I tell you a story...
Google put on a seminar at Melbourne University a few months ago. I attended because there were rumours flying about that they were thinking of starting up a centre in Melbourne. (sounded good: I'm Bored and I managed to crack the oddball and obscure recruitment drive they had a while back :-).

The seminar concentrated on how their search farms and page ranking worked. Along with a few gosh! wow! statistics about Google's day to day operations (eg: they've got so much RAM chugging away that the parity checkers can detect disruptions due to solar flares!!) were a few comments on how the strategies they adopt to prevent third parties from 'loading the dice' in favour of their own website.

It made me wonder about their commitment to impartial presentation of data. What checks do they have in place to ensure that somebody doesn't allow a 'tweak' to be allowed? I concluded that, on the whole, Google staff were aware of this possibility, and that's where I left it; I thought the implications pretty obvious...
... until I picked up on this piece via Tim Bray's Ongoing blog.

China is probably the last great bastion of centralised authority on Earth. I think its commitment to control of the internet is comparable to the Three Gorges dam on the Yellow River: a vast undertaking with an ultimately futile action. I think that both typify the Chinese Government's mindset: they can't think of doing anything else, because they only have one viewpoint.

By electing to block certain newsfeeds to its China service, Google may add a few sandbags to the levies, but that's all. And maybe they realised this when they agreed to do so in order to get any sort of service into China. It all comes down to a bit of pragmatism on the part of Google.

But, like the decision of the US supreme court to disallow the disputed and crucial Florida ballots along party lines, this will have ramifications going to go to the heart of what Google is about:
" organize the world's information and make it universally accessible and useful"
Now, the news service isn't the search engine. It is a filtered and refined variant of it and, if you think the feeds provided start off by presenting an impartial report, you are very naive. The power of such newsfeed services relies on their ability to concisely present many eyes for you to look at a particular issue with and decide on for yourself. If the provider starts to selectively blind these eyes, then it is the provider that has lost it's impartiality.

Not you, not the internet, but Google.

I'll end by quoting from memory Sir Thomas Moore chastising his betraying ex-secretary in 'A Man For All Seasons':
'It profits a man nothing to sell his soul for the world: but for Wales..!'

(Mind you, the Melbourne centre still sounds good!)


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