The Horror of the Question

At what point do we start to demand a whole hell of a lot more from collective corpse of the corporate fat cats whose hands pull the levers and turn the dials of what is euphemistically called "the Internet economy"?

At what point do we start to demand a whole hell of a lot more from collective corpse of the corporate fat cats whose hands pull the levers and turn the dials of what is euphemistically called “the Internet economy”?

When Google (finally) stood on its hind legs and told the Chinese government to go fuck itself after years of bending over a couch and taking it in the ass at the behest of the country’s censor happy control freaks, we all cheered as if Superman finally came out of a Kryptonite induced coma to save the day.  What we real should have been saying is, “What took you so fucking long?”

But hey, it’s Google, the digital age corporate equivalent of the teflon President Ronald Reagan–nothing stuck to that pompous, self-aggrandizing, astrology believing S.O.B.  Nothing sticks to Google and frankly, if it does, they shake it off like a Lab shakes off water after good swim in the lake.

But Google, and other Internet giants, have gotten a free ride from us for far too long.  The company wields a power that is a Bill Gates wet dream.  If the company unleashed the Code Warriors on its payroll and said “sic ’em” there are few governments, and likely no private industry, that could withstand the assault (you can damn well better believe that the NSA was knocking on Google’s door after the company outed China for hacking into gmail accounts and dozens of U.S. companies) [EDITORIAL UPDATE, Feb. 4When I wrote this blog post, I had no idea my prediction of the NSA running to Google was, literally, being carried out in real time.]  Yes, I believe they hold that “Mighty Right Hand of God” type power.  I also believe that the simple fact that they don’t use that power on a regular basis means they are living up to their mantra of “Do No Evil.”  Because, brother, if Google wanted to rain down a shit storm on anyone, anywhere, it would not be pretty.

OK, enough of the voodoo rhythm routine… what has gotten me all riled up today is an excellent blog post from an acquaintance of mine, Lauren Weinstein.  In Lauren’s most recent blog post he takes on the touchy issue of whether there isn’t more Google can do to help thwart the rampant dissemination of horrendous (I’ll just call them obscene) images of unspeakable accidents.  For years the family of an 18-year-old girl what was decapitated in a car accident–the images actually show her head cleaved in two–has tried in vain to erase on-site accident photos from being displayed on the Net.  Allegedly, someone with the California Highway Patrol leaked the images and they went viral.  A California appeals court just ruled that the lawsuit the family brought against CHiP can proceed.

Now, anyone that knows my background knows I’m foursquare against censorship; in fact, I was one of the original plaintiffs in Reno v. ACLU that succeeded in having the Communications Decency Act declared unconstitutional.  But with the proliferation of these accident images, we’re into a whole other argument.

Lauren writes much more logically and even-handed about this than I can.  He writes:

A simple search on the victim’s name in Google Images yields seemingly endless copies of the exceedingly gruesome photos, even when Google SafeSearch is set to its most strict setting.

Let’s be very clear. I’m not suggesting that the photos be banned. And indeed, Google is merely indexing and archiving imagery that is by definition actually posted and hosted at external sites not under Google’s control.

But even given these facts, would it be fair to say that Google has no role to play in the exploitation and monetization of these images, and in the continuing grief that they cause the victim’s parents and other family members? … Google is almost certainly the primary mechanism through which the vast majority of persons discover and locate these images.

There are some relatively simple amelioratory steps that I’d suggest in this specific case.

Google could take a more proactive stance to avoid having such images being so openly displayed when not in completely unfiltered SafeSearch mode. My hunch is that flagging most of these specific accident photos as posted — even on an ongoing basis (based on keywords and Google’s advanced image analysis algorithms) — would be relatively straightforward given Google’s resources.

More broadly, this case brings into focus a class of issues representing extremely difficult ethical dilemmas that often aren’t subject to improvement through engineering alone.

Going back to my rant:  finding a solution for to this problem should be child’s play for Google.  Pulling out of China was a decision no more difficult than walking out on a Quentin Tarantino movie; taking on an issue that rides the razor’s edge of censorship takes real balls.  We should demand Google grow some of brass.

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About brock

Brock is currently the Executive Editor at Atlantic Media Strategies and former Chief Washington Correspondent for MSNBC; he is the founder/creator/editor of CyberWire Dispatch, the Net's pioneering online journalistic news service. Previously he was the Director of Communications for the Center for Democracy & Technology, a non-profit, Washington, D.C.-based public interest group working to keep the Internet open, innovative and free. The views expressed here are his alone and do not reflect the opinions, attitudes or policy positions of his employer(s) past or present.