Information wants to be profitable

By Shamus Posted Monday Feb 13, 2006

Filed under: Nerd Culture 2 comments

Mark has a post on “Unintended Customers”, where he talks about companies offering a product or service and then being shocked when someone wants to use the thing in a way the company didn’t anticipate.

“Randy Waterhouse works for the company that’s attempting to set up a data haven, and he finds that the most of his customers want to use the data haven to store money. Pretty straightforward, right? Well, most of the people who want to store their money their are criminals of the worst sort. I guess in that particular case, there is reason to freak out at these unexpected customers, but I thought the reference was interesting because while there may be lots of legitimate uses for a data haven, the criminal element would almost certainly be attracted to a way to store their drug money (or whatever) with impugnity (that and probably spam, pornography, and gambling). Like all advances in technology, the data haven could be used for good or for ill… “

This reminds me of a controvery on Slashdot a while ago. People were concerned that open-source software (Linux, in particular) was being used by terrorists, and were debating about how they might stop it from happening. This was a bit like inventing a hammer, and then finding out people were using the hammer to build gallows on which heretics were hung. Many inventors, when confronted with this, attempt to make their hammer unable to build gallows and yet still be as useful as the original hammer. I can’t recall an instance where this has worked, but it’s understandable that they try. Nobody wants to see their work benefitting their enemies.

Which brings me to the bizzare Google controversy of last week, which seems to be some sort of inversion of this problem. Google is already the most popular search engine by far, so they don’t need to go out of their way to attract “better” customers. And yet, they were working to accomodate Chineese censors. This would be like Avi and Randy sitting atop a successful data haven and saying, “Sure we have lots of regular customers, but criminals refuse to do business with us unless we make some changes. So let’s do it!” The great thing about being big and successful is that you no longer need to worry about pleasing unsavory customers, because you have plenty of regular ones. (Okay, we are talking about everyone in China, which is an awful lot of “customers”.)

Lots of people pointed out that Google is a public company, and can’t sacrifice profits for ideals, even if the ideals are popular, resonable ones like the freedom for people to communicate. This is true enough, but I think Google has made a disasterous business decision as well.

Setting aside the free speech issues, the real danger for both Google and the hypothetical data haven is that once you prove you are both willing and able to bend your system to someone’s will, a lot of people are going to begin exerting power against you to make you bend it their way. Some people have already pointed out that Google is now willing to censor political dissent (in China), but not child porn (in the US). If a court suddnly demands that Google start blocking child porn, they can no longer claim it isn’t feasible from a technical standpoint, and they can’t refuse without looking like they support child porn. Keeping this in mind, there is no end to the types of information people would like to block, limit, or control. What about detailed plans for building bombs from common items? What about methods of tax evasion? Hate speech? Regular porn? Gambling? Swastikas in Germany? Swimsuit pictures in Egypt? Danish political cartoons?

Google may soon find itself being dragged into courts around the world, forced to filter all sorts of things for different powers, and being held accountable for things they “should” have filtered but didn’t. This could get very messy for them. If this happens, they will need to do lots of unprofitable coding to meet these demands. Going back to the hammer analogy, they are going to be bullied into making all sorts of special hammers that can and cannot do various taks, just to keep the customers they have now. In the end, their search engine may be less useful because people will trust in the results less. (For example, a support website aimed at victims of child porn may be tagged as actual child porn, and indeed this post might be labeled as such because I’m using the term so often.)

Google should fear the day when people see something offsensive in the search results, and instead of thinking, “Why does that website exist?” they think, “Why did Google index that site?” If people percieve them as being responsible for the contents of the internet, there is no end of the trouble they will have.


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2 thoughts on “Information wants to be profitable

  1. Peter Burns says:

    On the one hand, yes, Google is succumbing to pressure from China to censor. This is a means of control by an oppressive state and shouldn’t be minimized. However, Chinese users can still access, though its availability is sporadic at best. Furthermore, from what I understand, when search results are excluded, there’s a message included in the search results letting you know (as in searches for ‘scientology’ not too long ago).

    There is a real danger of other governments putting pressure on Google to censor their results, and that may be the biggest problem of all.

    All in all though I don’t think it’s clear cut that Google made the wrong decision. Clearly I think we all would prefer it if was uncensored, but that’s really the Chinese government’s fault, isn’t it? Google is working with China to censor, but China is censoring all on its own.

  2. Katrani Merack says:

    “(For example, a support website aimed at victims of child porn may be tagged as actual child porn, and indeed this post might be labeled as such because I'm using the term so often.)”

    This reminds me of something I read about the word ‘breast’ being banned by AOL and a site to help survivors of breast cancer got completely deleted. If I’m remembering right, anyways.

    When will companies learn their lesson? Some stuff can’t be censored indefinitely, and if you try, you’ll just make someone mad that had the opposite but still got punished for it.

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