Google’s Silent Censorship

Google has recently released a report detailing their approach to moderating the content of websites that are shown in their web search results. Although presented as a means of dealing with genuinely problematic deceptive practises, the changes conceal a potentially concerning overreach in Google’s role in the moderation of the internet. Google’s new approach to “News and Discover” policy violations may result in news media websites that have been deemed to cover news in a manner not approved of, by standards defined by Google themselves, no longer appearing in Google’s search results. 

Google is synonymous with searching the internet. In the Anglosphere, to ‘Google’ something is linguistically interchangeable with ‘searching online for something’. Google is the primary search engine of 87% of internet users, followed up by Bing at a mere 7% of users as of January 2021. Therefore, Google represents the main gateway in which most users access the internet and thus the company has an extremely significant influence on what individuals experience online.

Google has recently released their Manual Actions report, which seeks to inform website owners about Google’s approach to moderating content in the search results. A “manual action” is when a human reviewer at Google, as opposed to an algorithm, has determined that a site is not compliant with Google’s quality guidelines. According to Google, most manual actions address attempts by websites to manipulate their position in search results. If a site is deemed to be breaching these guidelines, the site can be ranked lower or omitted from search results entirely. These guidelines cover “the most common forms of deceptive or manipulative behavior”, including: 

“Automatically generated content, Participating in link schemes, Creating pages with little or no original content, Cloaking, Sneaky redirects, Hidden text or links, Doorway pages, Scraped content, Participating in affiliate programs without adding sufficient value, Loading pages with irrelevant keywords, Creating pages with malicious behavior, such as phishing or installing viruses, trojans, or other badware, Abusing structured data markup and Sending automated queries to Google.”

Google targeting the issues listed above is far from controversial, as these practices seem genuinely deceptive or manipulative, providing little reason to object to their removal. However, perhaps more questionably, the guidelines outline that some content outside of the specified areas may still harm a website’s position in search results:

“Google may respond negatively to other misleading practices not listed here. It's not safe to assume that just because a specific deceptive technique isn't included on this page, Google approves of it. Website owners who spend their energies upholding the spirit of the basic principles will provide a much better user experience and subsequently enjoy better ranking than those who spend their time looking for loopholes they can exploit.”

Although it appears this statement seeks to address prospective loopholes in their guidelines, as they explicitly state, the vague nature of the statement could be a cause for concern. It is possible that certain websites may fall afoul of this standard if they do not break any of the formal rules but simultaneously do not ‘uphold the spirit of the basic principles’. 

However, it would not be appropriate to overstate this issue either, as Google does outline a procedure to get a site re-reviewed once an issue has been addressed. A website may avoid any negative impacts on a site’s place in Google’s search results if a site is willing to change any content deemed unacceptable. 

Perhaps the most concerning in its implications is the section on “News and Discover policy violation”. This seems somewhat out of place alongside the aforementioned deceptive or manipulative practices described above. These new guidelines cover a wide array of topics, in which Google has provided the message that will be sent to website owners which illuminates their intent further:

“Adult-themed content” -  “Google has detected content on your site that appears to violate our adult-themed content policy because it contains nudity, sex acts, sexually suggestive activities, or sexually explicit material.”

“Dangerous content” - “Google has detected content on your site that appears to violate our dangerous content policy because it contains content that could directly facilitate serious and immediate harm to people or animals.”

“Harassing content” - “Google has detected content on your site that appears to violate our harassing content policy because it contains harassment, bullying, or threatening content, including but not limited to, that which might single someone out for malicious abuse, threaten someone with serious harm, sexualize someone in an unwanted way, expose private information of someone else that could be used to carry out threats, disparage, or belittle victims of violence or tragedy, deny an atrocity, or harass in other ways.”

“Hateful content” - “Google has detected content on your site that appears to violate our hateful content policy with content that incites hatred. We do not allow content that promotes or condones violence, or has the primary purpose of inciting hatred against an individual or group, including but not limited to, on the basis of their race or ethnic origin, religion, disability, age, nationality, veteran status, sexual orientation, gender, gender identity, or any other characteristic that is associated with systemic discrimination or marginalization. 

“Manipulated media” -  “Google has detected content on your site that appears to violate our manipulated media policy. We do not allow audio, video or image content that has been manipulated to deceive, defraud, or mislead by means of creating a representation of actions or events that verifiably did not take place and would cause a reasonable person to have a fundamentally different understanding or impression thereof - such that it may cause significant harm to groups or individuals, or significantly undermine participation or trust in electoral or civic processes.”

“Medical content” - “Google has detected content on your site that appears to violate our medical content policy because it contains content primarily aimed at providing medical advice, diagnosis or treatment for commercial purposes. We also do not allow content from any site that contradicts or runs contrary to scientific or medical consensus and evidence-based best practices.”

“Misleading content” -  “Google has detected content on your site that appears to violate our misleading content policy and misleads users into engaging with it by promising a topic or story which is not reflected in the content.”

“Sexually explicit content” - “Google has detected content on your site that appears to violate our sexually explicit content policy because it contains explicit sexual imagery or videos primarily intended to cause sexual arousal.”

“Terrorist content” - “Google has detected content on your site that appears to violate our terrorist content policy and promotes terrorist or extremist acts, including recruitment, inciting violence, or celebrating terrorist attacks.”

“Transparency” - “Google has detected content on your site that appears to violate our transparency policy. Visitors to your site want to trust and understand who publishes the content they are consuming, and information about those who have written articles. That's why news sources on Google should provide clear dates and bylines, as well as information about authors, the publication, the publisher, company or network behind it, and contact information.”

“Violence and gore content” - “Google has detected content on your site that appears to violate our violence and gore policy because it contains content that incites or glorifies violence. We also do not allow extremely graphic or violent materials for the sake of disgusting others.”

“Vulgar language and profanity” - “Google has detected content on your site that appears to violate our vulgar language and profanity policy because it contains gratuitous obscenities or profanities.”

Although some of these new guidelines are seemingly innocuous (e.g. combating content that incites or glorifies violence) there are also some causes for concern. The liberal usage of subjective terminology may muddy the water when it comes to clarity about which content abides by the rules and what does not. Potentially removing websites from search results because they contain trivialities such as “vulgar language” appears to be going far beyond reasonable expectations of the services of a search engine. Similarly, under these rules, Google is the judge of whether a headline in a news article matches its content. Spelling out a list of protected characteristics which cannot be criticised, represents a clear political position on the issue of ‘hate speech’ taken by Google. It appears Google intends to expand their measures to curate the websites that appear at the top of their search results. On the flip side, websites will have to navigate a fine line to maintain a favourable view if they wish to retain relevance.

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