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Missing and Presumed Blocked

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Google admits to blocking hate sites in France and Germany:

    Google, the popular Internet search engine, has excluded more than 100 Web sites from the French and German versions of its index under pressure from those nations’ governments, a new study has found.

    The sites include many devoted to white supremacist philosophy and Nazism, with names like Jew Watch. Ben Edelman, who did the research, said “they are mostly pretty terrible pages.”

    Mr. Edelman wrote the study with Jonathan Zittrain, a co-director of the Berkman Center for Internet and Society at Harvard Law School. They said that the issue of Internet blocking and filtering raised questions about the ability of governments to censor the Internet. Government efforts to filter or block Internet traffic are on the rise, and include recent attempts by France, still in court, to force Yahoo to remove auctions featuring Nazi memorabilia. Google was also blocked last month by China, which diverted queries for Google to other sites the government deemed friendlier.

    ….In a statement yesterday, Google said that it removed sites “that may conflict with local laws” from the German and French versions of its index “to avoid legal liability,” and that it did so case by case, after receiving notices or complaints from “partners, users, government agencies, and the like,” taking action only after careful consideration.

    ….Silent blocking leaves Google users with no indication of what information is being withheld, Professor Zittrain said, adding: “People don’t know what they don’t know.”

    “This is like terra incognita right now,” he said. “There are not settled norms and practices for how Google should be dealing with these requests. This is the moment to try to frame a consistent set of practices that make sense, rather than doing it by the seat of the pants.”

Not knowing what we don’t know would seem to be the biggest danger. But if Google et al were to tell us what is missing, wouldn’t that conflict with the purpose of the blocking in the first place? However, there should be a consistent stated policy that the search engines follow, and there should be a method of finding out what sites have blocked and why, other than tossing out a fishing net into cyberspace and comparing discrepancies between results. Even the most noble justifications for blocking make blocking for less noble reasons that much easier, leading to such statements as: “You block for your own reasons and we block for ours. Who are you to tell us your reasons are better than ours.”

See the full text of the Zittrain/Edelman study here.

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