Yesterday I came across this news article which covered Russia’s recent proposal to introduce government legislation to censor the internet, the bill will allow the Russian government to shut down blacklisted sites with potentially harmful content which they claim is targeted specifically at child pornography sites and similar law breaking domains. While the intention seems noble and certainly no sane minded person could argue against legislation used to this end you can’t help but feel this is the start of a slippery slope.
It’s fair to say I was inspired to write this article based on the recent legislation developments both abroad and at home in UK, not least the introduction of the new EU cookie legislation which has certainly kept designers and developers busy for the last few months (as well as the UK government). But my focus here is to consider the issue of censorship not just by Government but by Google which is itself the biggest censor imaginable, have no illusions, and how shifting this balance would impact business worldwide.
Google as we all know is the giant of the internet, figures released this month suggest Google holds a 66.8% share of the US search market while in the UK it’s a whopping 90.73% share of the market, Google’s 2012 first quarter profits exceeded $10 billion! As we’ve seen in recent years Google hold the power of life and death over online businesses across the world and has no fear of using this power first with the Panda Update in 2011 which destroyed site visibility for those unlucky enough to have duplicate or poor quality content on their site, then this year with Penguin Update impacted sites with ‘over-optimised’ content and links.
There’s no doubt Google is a company, a product and as such is entitled to develop its service as it sees fit issuing restrictions and guidelines for its users and inflicting penalties on those who flout the rules but with stakes so high is it right for an unelected body such as this to hold such power over a huge part of the UK economy, online business now valued at around £82 billion which is an estimated 6% of the UK Gross Domestic Product and not least we need to consider the social implications of this level of control which allows Google to deindex entire websites, effectively erasing them from the public perception.
So what’s the alternative? Well should we choose to move against the online giant government legislation seems to be the only other reasonable alternative, allowing our elected officials to decide what we should and should not have access to online seems a sensible and measured reaction but we’ve already seen how this can be abused in other countries including China, Syria and Iran. What’s more how is the government supposed to determine how businesses rank online while remaining impartial? It seems this is a fairy tale solution that will remain so.
It’s unlikely the situation will change any time soon with Google still dominating the search market in the US and UK and the western world still rejecting government censorship so whole heatedly in defence of human rights and freedom of speech (long may they do so!) as with the recent SOPA bill in the US. Perhaps the other alternative is for the government to issue legislation which breaks Google’s monopoly of the search market allowing other competitors to share the spoils and responsibilities and possibly generating greater competition within online business with an elected body or watchdog with greater control over changes to online search algorithms and guidelines.
What’s your opinion?