Karan Bhatia, a high-ranking Google executive, recently denied the company uses blacklists despite reports from multiple sources to the contrary.
During his recent testimony before the Senate, Bhatia, Google’s vice president of government affairs and public policy, made explicit broad denials about the existence of blacklists in response to questions from Sen. Marsha Blackburn, R-Tenn.
“Has Google ever blacklisted, or attempted to blacklist, a company, group, individual or outlet from its advertising partners or its search results for political reasons?” Blackburn asked.
“No, ma’am, we don’t use blacklists [or] whitelists to influence our search results,” Bhatia answered.
“For what reason does Google blacklist a company?” Blackburn asked pushing back on Bhatia.
“As I said, per your previous question, we do not utilize blacklists or whitelists in our search results to favor political outcomes. That’s not — doesn’t happen,” he said.
Despite the Google VP’s claim that the company does not use blacklists, several recent reports contradict his claim.
First, Google was exposed for favoring a political ideology when it pushed a pro-life video from one of the coveted top 10 spots on YouTube search. It did so by utilizing a blacklist for the term “abortion.” This revelation directly contradicted the testimony of Google’s own CEO, Sundar Pichai, when he told Congress that Google does not “manually intervene” in any particular search result.
Next, in an exclusive report from The Daily Caller, internal documents in fact use the word “blacklist” to filter “problematic” sites.
“Two official policies dubbed the ‘misrepresentation policy’ and the ‘good neighbor policy’ inform the company’s ‘XPA news blacklist,’ which is maintained by Google’s Trust & Safety team,” the leaked documents say. “T&S will be in charge of updating the blacklist as when there is a demand.”
The information covered by The Daily Caller was based on leaked internal policy documents that had been approved by some of the highest-ranking officials at Google.
According to the report, the document was explicit that the blacklist would directly and dramatically impact search results. “The deceptive_news domain blacklist is going to be used by many search features to filter problematic sites that violate the good neighbor and misrepresentation policies,” the policy document said.
Jordan Bloom, deputy editor of The Daily Caller and author of the report, isn’t buying Bhatia’s denials.
“Google plainly does have blacklists, which are referred to as blacklists in their own internal policy documents and code, as my reporting shows,” Bloom told The Western Journal. “The blacklists I revealed apply to what are called special search results, which are still search results, and refer to the various things other than the ‘ten blue links’ that come up in boxes when one types in a query, such as Google News. These products are not trivial, they can impact a media business in big ways.”
Bloom argued Google is misleading Congress and the public in an effort to keep its federally granted protections under Section 230, a law that grants Google immunity form certain civil liabilities as long as it is classified as a “platform.”
“Google does not want to admit that there are quasi-editorial decisions being made for these search products because that would mean they are acting like a publisher, not a platform,” Bloom said.
Google’s intent for implementing its blacklists presents a more difficult question. Google, like Facebook, Twitter and other tech companies, rarely — “never” is probably a more accurate term — take ostensible suppressive action along politically ideological lines. Rather, companies couch their actions in gray subjectivity. For instance, censorial steps might be explained by claiming the content violated a “hate speech” guideline, as in the case of a quote from Mother Teresa.
But the mushy guidelines that define hate speech leave much wiggle room. The enforcers that demote and ban content follow subjective applications of already subjective terms.
The second way that Silicon Valley companies explain suppressive action is by claiming certain sites don’t meet best practices or are technically unsound. Claiming a site has bad ads, poor landing page experience, too many pop-ups or a slow loading time are all reasons Google and Facebook cite to suppress certain sites. And while those are all perfectly good reasons, the problem comes when those rules are applied differently to sites with different ideological frameworks.
At a time when Facebook told The Western Journal that it was being “penalized” on its platform for pop-up ads and aggressive advertising tactics, CNN was using even more pop-ups and much more aggressive tactics on its page. However, publicly available metrics showed Facebook didn’t penalize CNN despite its actions against The Western Journal.
Bloom spoke to The Western Journal about the difficulty in addressing subjectivity behind a company’s actions.
“As for whether they add or remove things for political reasons, that is a trickier question,” he said. “The reasons for blacklisting something, according to their stated policies, are if a site is sponsored or deceptive. The trouble is several of the blacklisted sites do not appear to be sponsored or deceptive, such as the American Spectator, or [The Daily Caller].”
Bloom’s point leads to a final problem with holding Google and its cohort accountable. U.S. lawmakers and conservative commentators are often simply not as familiar as they need to be to ask sufficiently probing questions. While it is true a broad lack of transparency over the inner workings of these companies does not aid in informing us about their processes, it is also true that many of the questions posed at the congressional hearings show a failure to understand how the companies work and therefore do not rigorously investigate all the problematic areas.
“Perhaps as a company, [Google does] not blacklist things for political reasons, but the fact is several sites have been blacklisted for reasons that appear to be political,” Bloom said. “It would have been nice if the senators got into these specifics, because there are important questions here that deserve answers.”
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