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June 19, 2007:

“Smart-Mob” Censorship at Google and YouTube

By Marc Baber

Three days after I posted a college lecture on the Google-Video website, it disappeared.   The lecture was about measuring “warmongering” as a psychological trait using surveys and statistics.  Dr. Bill McConochie, who presented his findings as a guest speaker to a class at Lane Community College, was pleased when his lecture ranked number one in Google’s search results for “warmongering”.  It became my task to inform him that his video was now missing from Google’s search results.

I soon learned that Google has a feature called “SafeSearch” intended to “block web pages containing explicit sexual content from appearing in search results.”    By default, the SafeSearch feature is set to “moderate filtering” which supposedly only filters explicit sexual images.  Many Google users are unaware that any such filter exists or that it’s normally enabled without their knowledge.

When I turned SafeSearch filtering off in my Google preferences, McConochie’s video once again appeared as the first-ranked “warmongering” video.  So, I sent Bill an e-mail with the subject “Google thinks you’re sexy” to blunt the bad news a little.

On Google’s video pages, there’s a tab labeled “Flag as inappropriate” which allows users to flag videos as “pornography or obscenity”, “racially or ethnically hateful content”, “graphic violence” or “other content inappropriate for young viewers”.  If enough people flag a video as inappropriate, the video no longer appears in search results when SafeSearch is on (which, again, is the default).

According to Google spokesperson Gabriel Stricker, “The users can flag content that they feel is inappropriate, and once it is flagged it is reviewed by our staff and removed from the system if it violates our Terms of Use… When SafeSearch is turned on, sites and web pages containing pornography and explicit sexual content are blocked from search results.”

I give Google the benefit of the doubt by supposing that, in practice, Google staff only rarely review content that is flagged as inappropriate by users before the material is actually filtered.  If Google staff reviewed all of the filtered content to determine if it was, in fact, inappropriate then Google could be held responsible for those decisions.  And, as we’ll soon see, many of the decisions are ethically indefensible (and may be legally indefensible as well).

As a private corporation, Google has no profit incentive to pay a staff of video censors to watch “TV” all day and note which videos contain offensive material.  Instead, Google relies on anonymous tips from viewers who encounter content they feel is offensive.  The concept of “smart mobs”, whereby valuable knowledge is inexpensively distilled from large-scale public interaction is fashionable in web-savvy circles, however, sometimes mobs can get ugly.

Unfortunately, offensiveness, like beauty, is in the eye of the beholder.  If someone is the sort of person who would rather silence others than debate them, and if Google hands them the power to do so with the click of a mouse and if they never have to justify their censorship decisions to anyone, free speech can suffer as a result.

To find out if it’s possible for any user to censor videos on Google, I had to choose a target in spite of my opposition, in principle, to censorship.  I finally settled on a popular blond commentator infamous for referring to one of the current presidential candidates as a “faggot”.  If someone’s free speech would have to be sacrificed to test my hypothesis, hers seemed a reasonable, if regrettable, choice.  After confirming that the test video could be accessed both with and without filtering enabled, a friend and I each flagged the video as “inappropriate”.  Those two votes were sufficient to make the video immediately invisible in SafeSearch’s “strict filtering” mode.  Presumably, a few more votes would have been enough to make the video invisible in the default “moderate filtering” mode as well.

Suddenly, the mystery of the “disappearance” of Dr. McConochie’s video began to become clearer.

Having infiltrated the ranks of the self-appointed internet thought police, I decided to find out more about what other individuals and topics were being dropped on the cutting room floor, so to speak, by my fellow culture warriors.

As of this morning, I’ve searched on over two hundred search terms in both unfiltered and “moderate filtering” modes and noted how many more video links are returned in unfiltered mode and what percentage of the total videos for the search topic are deemed offensive.  At this time, we can only speculate as to who is flagging videos as offensive and why, but, even so, I think these findings are sufficient to warrant further study.

For example, I can say that nine percent (9%) of all videos that come up in a search for “labor” (some 935 out of  9,874) have been flagged as inappropriate.  I can’t say if the offensive videos were about labor organizing and unions or about childbearing and midwifery.  If the videos were about labor organizing, I couldn’t tell you if the censored videos were pro-labor or anti-labor or whether the censors themselves were pro-labor or anti-labor.  All I can say is that there is sufficient controversy of some kind associated with a given search term that’s strong enough to make some people want to hide the video from others.

Even with this limited testing, however, it is interesting to note the censorship rates for various search words and phrases:

 

Search Term/Phrase

Censorship rate

Number of censored videos

long beach city council meeting

73%

37

al qaeda

22%

808

dixie chicks

18%

454

sex education

17%

144

hurricane katrina

16%

795

vietnam

16%

5233

patriot act

13%

119

fallujah

12%

171

alex jones

12%

687

torture

12%

1359

russia

11%

4017

wiretapping

11%

38

health care

11%

420

homicide

11%

275

hispanic

11%

513

oj simpson

10%

100

ed asner

10%

12

judaism

10%

270

columbine

10%

183

labor

9%

935

first amendment

9%

92

constitution

9%

374

security

9%

2621

wind power

9%

50

greg palast

9%

32

third world

9%

127

arab

8%

3734

islam

8%

5277

iraq

8%

6315

AIDS

8%

2363

israel

8%

3758

afghanistan

8%

1132

toxic

8%

723

viagra

8%

185

child abuse

8%

174

environmental

7%

528

penis

7%

1241

marijuana

7%

843

dick cheney

7%

135

war

7%

25065

cia

7%

981

human rights

7%

409

socialism

7%

94

nsa

7%

115

protestant

7%

100

immigration

7%

638

depleted uranium

7%

23

nixon

7%

197

penthouse

7%

125

bill moyers

7%

25

genocide

7%

377

murder

7%

2550

right to vote

7%

12

jfk

6%

334

darfur

6%

181

noam chomsky

6%

59

prostitution

6%

301

gardening

6%

3442

abortion

6%

247

cocaine

6%

392

peace

6%

4205

protest

5%

1139

bush

5%

5402

iran

5%

1537

communism

5%

157

massacre

5%

829

santa claus

5%

305

hinduism

5%

65

bill of rights

5%

26

catholic

5%

741

beatles

5%

2011

dennis kucinich

5%

34

hugo chavez

5%

125

bill o'reilly

5%

98

jesus

5%

5351

holocaust

4%

208

poverty

4%

377

guantanamo

4%

75

condoleeza rice

4%

17

skull and bones

4%

34

free speech

4%

91

atomic

4%

433

football

4%

8869

christianity

4%

4442

global warming

4%

513

pollution

4%

175

The above table alone includes over 100,000 censored videos. 

As a stalwart supporter of free speech, I find it appalling that so many topics that aren’t sexual or violent are censored so heavily.  It appears that there is already ample evidence to support the conclusion that Google’s “SafeSearch” feature is routinely abused to limit free speech, as it was in the case of Dr. McConochie’s lecture.

And as it is currently in the case of San Diego public broadcasting station KPBS’s television program “Full Focus”.  If you search Google video for content related to “full focus” (in quotes to get only entries with both words together in that order), you’ll find about 576 videos when SafeSearch is turned off.  With SafeSearch in “moderate filtering” mode, only 214 of the videos are accessible, representing a 63% censorship rate.  If Google’s policies weren’t abused that would mean that 362 of the videos contain explicit sexual images.  If you really want to shrink your world, try setting SafeSearch to “strict filtering” mode.   In “strict” mode content is additionally filtered for explicit sexual text, and only five (5) videos (less than one percent of the total) for “Full Focus” are still available.  I don’t watch much TV myself anymore, but I’d be more than a little surprised if over 99% of KPBS’s “Full Focus” programs contained explicit sexual content, especially since KPBS is dependent on public funding.

Also, citizens of Long Beach should pay more attention to their city council meetings.  “Long Beach City Council Meeting” videos are currently censored at a rate of 73%-- only 14 out of 51 of these videos are visible in “moderate filtering mode”.  With “strict” filtering, the number of available videos drops to zero (0).  What, indeed, is up with that?

By default, Google’s video search returns results from many sources other than Google such as YouTube (which has recently been acquired by Google).  It’s slightly more of a hassle to censor videos that aren’t hosted by Google.  I have only begun testing search terms using the domain-specific feature of Google’s “Advanced Video Search” to limit my testing to google.com only.  This provides a measure of censorship rates within a domain that only includes videos easily flagged as inappropriate by Google users.

Within the Google.com domain, videos on “Judaism” are apparently censored at a rate of 42%, “Greg Palast”—43%, “Kucinich”—53%.  These numbers indicate severely compromised freedom of speech.  If half of what anyone has to say on a given topic is censored, meaningful public dialog becomes impossible. 

We can only hope that as awareness of the abuse of Google’s SafeSearch feature for censorship grows, Google will discontinue SafeSearch or replace it with a system that includes accountability and reputation for the people making censorship decisions.  “Mobs” of Google users simply should not be allowed to anonymously blackball videos that they disagree with as if free speech were only a privilege for members of an exclusive 19th century gentlemen’s club.

And, finally, we can hope in the future Dr. McConochie and many other voices representing the full range of public opinion will be welcomed and minority opinions will be protected in this “marketplace of ideas” that the internet has become.

Marc Baber (marc *At* marcbaber.com) is a free-lance consultant, writer, website developer and activist for election reform based in Eugene Oregon specializing in database applications for non-profit organizations and political campaigns.

(c) 2007 Marc Baber

June 22, 2007:

Story Update:

I watched yesterday as most of the Dennis Kucinich videos were quietly rehabilitated to uncensored status by unseen forces at Google.  In a way, it's very gratifying to know my work is having an effect.  On the other hand, I feel a bit like the younger sibling whose parents won't believe his assertion that the older sibling is making faces at him when the parents aren't looking.

Early yesterday, only 56 out of 118  Kucinich videos hosted on Google.com were visible with moderate filtering.  This morning, 116 out of 117 are visible.  However, for people who opt to use "strict" filtering, only 21 of Kucinich's videos are visible.
Google has also rehabilitated both of Dr. McConochie's videos (even visible in "strict" mode) and all of the "long beach city council meeting" and "full focus" videos are now visible with moderate filtering turned on (though in "strict" mode only 5 Full Focus programs are visible and zero (0) of the long beach videos can be found.

That is a good change, and Google has proven to be responsive in a way that admits nothing wrong with the way flags are reported, but the underlying problem won't go away until Google changes the way complaints (flags) are handled.  And that's unlikely to happen if this story never gets out.

I've submitted this story to CommonDreams, TruthOut, Huffington Post and even contacted KPBS-- all to no avail so far.  In the Internet age, aspiring writers aren't even allowed the satisfaction of collecting rejection letters from prestigious publications. Woe is me :-). Can anyone help this story get some traction?  I wish I could work with the Google staff to design and implement an new reputation-based flagging system that would cut the "weight" of flags assigned by people who have wrongly flagged items in the past, while increasing the weight of flags from people who have proven to be reliable over time. I believe this measure of accountability for raters would fix the problem once and for all.

June 26, 2007

Wow. Even Slashdot won't touch this story. I just received my first explicit rejection and am even able to print it out for my "rejection letters from prestigious publications" collection.

July 16, 2007

I have become a "Personna Non Google". My home page has apparently been black-listed by Google, at least in "strict" filtering SafeSearch mode.

with filtering off, the usual 59 pages or so show up in the search results:

Funny, I don't remember adding any sexually explicit images or text to my home pages...

Gabriel,

All 59 of the pages at site:marcbaber.com are currently invisible to searchers using the "strict" SafeSearch filtering mode.

I don't know how people report text pages as inappropriate, but apparently your staff agreed when they reviewed the reportedly sexually explicit text.  I've not been able to find the sexually explicit content that Google staff has taken exception to-- could you please point it out to me so I can delete it?

Thank you,

Marc Baber

...

 

   
 © 2006 Marc Baber, www.MarcBaber.com