Google has moved against another set of conservative sites. While many have celebrated the action against ZeroHedge and The Federalist, I remain deeply concerned over the free speech implications of such actions. I have written for years about public and private censorship, including recent actions to regulate and control speech on the Internet. Democratic leaders have been calling for censorship on the Internet and in social media for years, a move that will destroy the greatest forum for free speech in the history of the world. Writers have joined in this movement and two such academics recently declared “China was right” all along about censorship.
As will come as no surprise to many on this blog, I view this latest action as another form of private censorship that targets conservative sites while ignoring similar rhetoric from the left. I am not very complex when it comes to such conflicts over free speech. I am not as much concerned with the merits of these fights as the implication of targeting some sites over others. I know very little about ZeroHedge while I am familiar with some of the writers on The Federalist. Google has said comparatively little about the reason for barring the sites and what NBC originally reported has been contradicted by the company. However, it is the explanation given for the action taken against the Federalist that I wanted to address. It seems to follow the pattern of politically biased, content-based discrimination against conservative sites by companies like Twitter, Facebook, and Google. Despite the clear bias shown in these actions, most academics are either applauding the crackdown or remaining conspicuously silent as companies silence those with opposing or unpopular views.
NBC News reported yesterday that ZeroHedge and The Federalist were banned from generating revenue through Google Ads. This demonetization of sites is a favorite tool for critics to shutdown writers or sites with opposing views. Google holds a virtual monopoly on such ad revenue (by some estimates over 70 percent of such revenue). Many groups recognized years ago that they could achieve a form of private censorship by getting Google, Twitter, and other companies to effectively cut off the ability of readers to see opposing views. For those of us who are part of the dinosaur class on free speech, the solution to bad speech should be more and better speech — rather than preventing others from hearing or reading opposing views.
The NBC reporter Adele-Momoko Fraser broke the story which ncorrectly stated that both sites were demonetized. The Federalist was not demonetized but warning that it might be demonetized unless it changed its site to meet Google’s demands. In fairness to Fraser, some have claimed that she got the story wrong. However, NBC has quoted a Google spokesperson as saying “When a page or site violates our policies, we take action. In this case, we’ve removed both sites’ ability to monetize with Google.” Google later clarified that it was forcing The Federalist to meet its demands.
In her reporting, Fraser characterized both sites a “far right.” Again, I am not that familiar with the sites but “far right” or “alt right” has become a ubiquitous label for sites that liberals or Democrats despise. There are virtually no comparable references to “far left” or “alt left” sites that routinely run conspiracy theories about Republicans or raw hateful statements against conservative figures like the Daily Kos and other sites.
Here is what Google noted about the Federalist action.
The Federalist published an article claiming the media had been lying about looting and violence during the protests, which were both included in the report sent to Google.
This is a common view held by both conservative politicians and writers today. Indeed, it often seems that you have to turn to Fox to check on the rioting and turn to CNN to check on the protesting. While one side claims that the rioting is being ignored, the other is claiming that it is being overblown.
This is a legitimate debate over the focus and bias of coverage. For example, Craig Melvin, an MSNBC host and co-anchor of “Today,” tweeted a “guide” that the images “on the ground” are not to be described as rioting but rather “protests.” That and other reporting led too many questioning the disconnect in reporting on peaceful protests with the scenes of burning buildings in the background and the report of hundreds of officers injured during the protests.
Then however a new reason for the threat came from Google which objected to its comment section. As we have discussed previously, many sites have eliminated their comments section because of trolls, paid or bot comments, or offensive speech. As one of the larger sites committed to free speech issues, we have resisted this trend to be open a forum for people to express themselves. We have tried to respond to complaints about offensive speech and in relatively few cases we have barred those who engage in such commentary. Because I have teaching and litigation duties, I have to rely on people raising racist or offensive content. However, comment section allow people to express their views and, while I often disagree with comments, I have tried not to censor them. Indeed, I routinely leave comments that insult me or say things that are demonstrably untrue about my past writings or testimony. The reason is that I feel uncomfortable with the role of censoring, particularly when I am the subject of the criticism.
Google has demanded that The Federalist remove its comment section because it offended the company’s policy against “dangerous and derogatory content.” The Federalist relented and reportedly eliminated its comment section. The result is the loss of the forum for individuals to exchange their views. The response of Google was an unmistakable message that sites would either comply with its demands or face ruin:
“Our policies do not allow ads to run against dangerous or derogatory content, which includes comments on sites, and we offer guidance and best practices to publishers on how to comply. As the comment section has now been removed, we consider this matter resolved and no action will be taken.”
There is also a concern over the NBC reporting. It was not only incorrect on the facts of the Goggle story but Fraser appeared to erase the line between reporting and advocacy in congratulating groups which target sites on the rights and seemingly celebrating the result.
NEW — from @NBC_VC. Thanks to @SFFakeNews and @CCDHate for their hard work and collaboration! https://twitter.com/NBC_VC/status/1272962743436374016 …
NBC News VC
Two far-right sites, ZeroHedge and The Federalist, will no longer be able to generate revenue from any advertisements served by Google Ads.@AMFraserNBC reports.https://www.nbcnews.com/tech/tech-news/google-bans-two-websites-its-ad-platform-over-protest-articles-n1231176 …
The Federalist complained that NBC did little to seek their view before running the story. Fraser relied on the Center for Countering Digital Hate, a British nonprofit that targets online hate and misinformation. Conservative sites have complained that the group is primarily seeking to shutdown conservative sites by labeling them purveyors of hate, including holding them responsible of comments.
As we discussed earlier with regard to Twitter, Google seems to be making the case for not only pushing forward with anti-trust inquiries but stripping it and other companies of immunity protections. Indeed, the Justice Department just announced that it is moving forward with proposals to strip away protections. Google and other companies were given protections under Section 320 because it has claimed to being a neutral supplier of virtual space for people to speak with one another. It is now effectively shutting down sites because they allow others to comment freely on their sites. This biased targeting of sites has led to congressional objections and renewed threats to amend the federal law. Indeed, Google is undermining the support with some of us who viewed protections are fostering free speech values. It is now using its role to stifle and regulate speech, the very antithesis of not just free speech but the federal protections.