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Zaude Kaufman: Beware those controlling what speech is 'appropriate'

Zaude Kaufman: Beware those controlling what speech is 'appropriate'

George Orwell was right: "Who controls the past controls the future. Who controls the present contro

George Orwell was right: "Who controls the past controls the future. Who controls the present controls the past."

Such power isn't limited to rewriting history. It extends to defining what we hear, what we read, what we say -- and ultimately what we think. It affects all of us, especially those who believe in the potential of words to shine a light on hidden agendas, hold the powerful to answer, and express ideas that shape our values.

The threat is both from governments, which feel a need to control their people, and from companies that have an unceasing urge to increase their power and their wealth.

Google is one of those companies. It is everywhere, so it is the premier gatekeeper. To a large extent, it dictates not only what information "gets in" but defines what is unacceptable and what is to be kept out.

Over the years, Google has been involved in many disputes over the power it wields.

A 2012 article in The Huffington Post by Wharton Professor Eric K. Clemons posed the question, "Can Google Influence an Election?" Clemons' answer: Of course it can. Simply by controlling the flow of information. Search engines are uniquely capable of doing this.

One issue that recurs often is Google's broadly defined prohibition against "mature content" on its advertising network, AdSense. This has wide-ranging repercussions because AdSense, which targets ad placements, is a significant source of revenue for blogs and websites, as well as a major revenue source for Google. Play by its rules, or you will be banned.

Earlier this year Google threatened to block an award-winning UK-based music webzine, Drowned in Sound, for displaying covers of albums by Sigur Ros, a post-rock band from Reykjavik, and Lambchop, an alternative/country band from Nashville. DiS fixed the matter by laying colored squares over the disputed areas. But DiS founder Sean Adams worried out loud that Google was only a small step away from seriously compromising freedom of expression.

For the past 18 months, Truthdig has been engaged in on-and-off battles with Google -- and it's been baffling for us. At best, the rules being imposed are poorly defined. At worst, they are arbitrarily imposed.

We were banned from AdSense for nearly a year. Why? Because an automated Google system identified "violations."

What were the violations? Google refused to say because information about them was "proprietary" and the company didn't want others to know what's deemed inappropriate. Otherwise websites might "circumvent our detection system." Finally Google relented and restored our AdSense account, but only after Truthdig hired a legal team and took the fight to Google's general counsel.

Frequently, Google falls back on vague boilerplate: "Publishers are not allowed to include ad placements on pages which contain mature content (including explicit language)."

Fair enough. But what is "mature" or "explicit"?

Often, Google's characterization of explicit language is questionable. Some of the references involve comments posted by the public.

Truthdig's alleged offenses are a curious mixture.

One targeted article is a brief blog about a newsworthy court ruling on pornography, contains a cartoon of Pepe Le Pew hugging a cat and links to an article in another publication.

Another is an excerpt titled "The Victims of Pornography" from a book that made the New York Times bestseller list. It is hard-hitting and powerfully written, and its language is raw because it quotes people formerly in the pornography industry speaking out about abuses.

Then there was an item about aerial drones -- which had only two sentences of text and which featured still and video images -- that Google insisted was in violation of unspecified rules and must be taken down. In came our legal team again. Google reviewed the posting and -- surprise, surprise -- found nothing inappropriate. The article was allowed to remain, but only after we challenged Google's original decision.

The purported violations are as much as seven years old. Why weren't they mentioned to us previously? Is someone complaining only now?

The danger for all of us is Google dictating what is and isn't permissible and feeling it's free to explain its reasons or not because it is the sole arbiter. This affects not only the media but also readers who comment online. Do we really want anyone -- companies, governments, neighbors, religious institutions -- to have that sort of power? The restrictions on freedom of expression could be enormous.

Today we are the target. What happens tomorrow when it's you?

Zuade Kaufman is a nationally syndicated columnist.

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