In the world of high technology and Internet media, government censors are far from the only threat to free speech. The search giant Google has become the de facto gatekeeper of truth and information in the digital age when having a website matters little if it is demoted to page eleven (or four hundred fifty-three) on web surfers' searches.
Or if the largest online ad company decides to freeze a conservative site's account and pull their primary revenue stream unless the site changes its political views.
Two recent controversies are again shining light on the consequences of Google's near-monopoly position in both Internet search and online advertisement.
The first is the systematic way in which conservative websites are downgraded in search results so that even extremely popular sites with thousands of link-backs and millions of views can be hidden deep in the list of search results.
The second is the increasingly common threat to pull ad money when a conservative site, far from inciting violence or even broadcasting "hate speech", simply enters the sphere of public debate.
An investigation by Leo Goldstein has presented evidence to support the case that Google has internally manipulated its algorithm to push conservative sites away from search users. The analysis, takes as its primary focus the biased treatment of conservative sites discussing climate change.
In this case, there can be no excuse that the sites "incite violence" or contain "hate speech" or trigger the emotions of sensitive individuals. No, it is simply a case of Google burying scientific dissent.
The average website today receives between 25% and 35% of its traffic from Google. Google uses a wide array of ranking factors to order the sites it indexes, including overall site traffic, number of connections to other sites (backlinks) and an enormous amount of user data gathered from the hundreds of millions of users on its Chrome browser.
Click-through, click frequency, hover-time, bounce-rate and cross-site user affiliation are just a few of the more nuanced factors Google feeds into its algorithm.
Take that 25% to 35% traffic range coming from Google searches and compare it, side by side with total web traffic, to a list of popular conservative sites and a pattern emerges.
For those interested in the more granular, site-by-site analysis, Goldstein's charts and analysis provide evidence that can't be ignored. He has broken down sites into four general categories:
- White/green list range: >36% of their traffic is directed in from Google searches
- Normal range: 20%-36% from Google searches
- Grey range: 12%-20% from Google searches
- Virtual black list range: <12% of traffic resulting from Google searches
Whereas it is impossible for outsiders to see the exact formula that Google uses to rank results, the effects are clear: extremely popular conservative websites are ranked far lower than their raw traffic should indicate in what can become a self-reinforcing cycle of lower ranked sites, thus, losing new visitors and then falling farther in the listings due to lower traffic volume.
The second way in which Google (and Facebook) exerts control over conservative websites is indirectly through their ad revenue. We all cheered when the vicious videos and propaganda posts from the Islamic State were censored from the Internet, but now Christians, climate scientists and conservatives are being subjected to the same corporate censorship.
The most recent example is that of censoring a Bible reading by Catholic Online that Google deemed offensive. These were not hateful speeches by incendiary priests but, instead, verbatim readings from the Bible that Google now considers offensive.
Not agreeing to remove the "offending" videos would have resulted in a demonetization of Catholic Online's entire website. The Internet, now a public space, is being governed by private corporations accountable only to their liberal directors.
In yet another example of censorship, the Liberty Conservative website was forced to remove an article that carefully explained how the alt-right is different from actual Nazis. Showing neither hate nor violence, the article could, instead, be seen as trying to distance conservatives from Nazism and hatred, but Google wasn't prepared to allow dissenting opinions.
The choice was to remove the offending article or lose all access to Google Ads (and the money already earned in the Liberty Conservative's account).
This "soft censorship" as it is called does not actually ban content outright, it simply pulls away funding or demotes it far enough in searches so that it is both essentially invisible and stripped of any way to support itself.
Without money to pay their staff, the publication goes out of business, but hey, Google never blocked their content, did it? Its near-monopoly position over both ad delivery and search results, as well as the bias against conservative viewpoints, is both very real and easily observed.
So, what is the solution? Is it more government regulation that would apply free speech more broadly to private companies that control the public flow of information? Is it greater transparency that would open up the black box that is Google's internal ranking algorithm?
Is it perhaps returning control of the publication and dissemination of information to the people, instead of a cloistered liberal elite running a few mega-corporations such as Facebook and Google?
Whatever the solution may be, we are unlikely to find it on a Google search any time soon.