Google Plays Both Sides in the Web Piracy Fight: Susan Crawford

The Internet’s watershed political
moment in the U.S. arrived this week. You can Google it. The
role of Google itself, however, in the so-called Web blackout is
more interesting than a quick Google search would indicate.

First, some background. On Jan. 18, to protest a pair of
anti-piracy bills in Congress, Wikipedia posted a blackout page
on its English-language site that was seen by more than 162
million people. Google, meanwhile, gathered 7 million signatures
against the bills. These tactics worked, at least temporarily:
At the beginning of the great day of Internet wrath, there were
80 members of Congress who supported the legislation and 31
opponents. Afterward, those numbers were 63 and 122, and Senate
Majority Leader Harry Reid had announced he was postponing this
week’s scheduled vote on the issue.

Google’s statesmanlike Chairman Eric Schmidt has led the
rhetorical charge against the two bills, the Stop Online Piracy
Act in the House and the Protect IP Act in the Senate. In
November, he called the bills “draconian” and said that
requiring Internet service providers to remove the URLs of
suspected pirates from the Web amounted to “censorship.”

Actions Versus Words

On Jan. 18, however, Google didn’t disappear. Students with
term papers to write may have had a tough time without
Wikipedia, but all of us could get a blizzard of results from
the familiar search giant. If actions speak louder than words,
then what was the meaning of Google’s inaction?

Janus-like, Google has two faces: It is both a technology
company — providing a way to navigate to the glories and
confusion of the Web — and a media company — producing content
and making choices about what consumers will find useful. Those
choices are based on extensive experience with consumers’ use of
search results.

Google-as-search-engine relies on user-generated content
(links, pages, reactions) to thrive. As an intermediary, Google
doesn’t want to be conscripted as an automatic enforcer of other
people’s copyrights. Thus Google’s objections to the piracy
bills, which give broad immunity from liability to service
providers that block other sites “dedicated to infringement.”
This legislation would encourage them to remove links on the
mere suspicion of illegal activity. As Schmidt’s remarks
indicate, search censorship sets a dangerous precedent at a time
when repressive regimes around the world target search engines
to limit what their citizens can know. Google-as-search-engine
has plenty of good reasons to oppose SOPA and PIPA.

But Google-as-speaker has enormous power to shape the
boundaries of knowledge. This month Google visibly flexed these
muscles when it introduced “Search, Plus Your World,” which
presents search results to users of Google+ that include
materials coming from people within the users’ “circles.”
Twitter results weren’t included, and Twitter’s general counsel,
Alex Macgillivray, himself a former Google employee, said that
the introduction of this product marked a “bad day for the
Internet” because Google’s search engine had been “warped.”

If Google had turned black on Jan. 18, its power would have
become obvious to millions more people. Left without Google, and
if ignorant about alternatives, consumers would have been up in
arms. Result: backlash.

Here’s a thought experiment: A few decades ago, how would
Americans have felt if one of the three major broadcast networks
devoted an entire day of programming to a particular political
advocacy campaign? Given the dominance of the few media outlets
of the time, the initial shock of seeing a broadcaster display a
political point of view would probably have been followed by
anger — and a push for greater regulation of all of the

On Safer Ground

Google obviously didn’t want to trigger that kind of fear
and knee-jerk political response. Nor did Google, as a public
company, want to lose revenue by closing down. (Wikipedia, by
contrast, is a volunteer enterprise.) So it stayed on safer
ground, tinkering with its logo — it was blacked out for the
day, as if redacted from a classified document — rather than
disappearing its search results.

Google-as-publisher, after all, has content concerns of its
own. What Google did was more akin to a network running a public
service announcement to present its views without preempting
anyone’s favorite soap opera.

This week, we met a new Google: Google-as-political-
influencer. How you feel about Google’s role will depend on your
categorization of the company. To irascible mogul and novice
Rupert Murdoch, Google is a pirate: “Piracy leader is
Google who streams movies free, sells advts around them. No
wonder pouring millions into lobbying.” As a media company,
Google would say it was adhering to its principles by putting
users first and being transparent: It didn’t make it difficult
for users to get work done, and the company made clear where the
Google “editorial” began and ended.

Making an editorial comment openly is arguably an upgrade
from the way media companies have historically sought to
influence politics. An old-media company might have played
backroom politics by threatening to run programming critical of
a candidate. Christopher Dodd, the former senator and now chief
executive of the Motion Picture Association of America, played
the old-media political heavyweight this week when he said that
Hollywood would be withholding money from Barack Obama’s
campaign because of the White House’s views on the piracy bills.

Google isn’t perfect. But we should root for its attempt to
balance its search-engine job with its media role, and encourage
every company — on the tech side, the content side, or in
between — to make clear what it’s up to when it engages in

(Susan Crawford is a Bloomberg View columnist and a
visiting professor at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government
and Harvard Law School. In 2009, she was a special assistant to
President Barack Obama for science, technology and innovation
policy. The opinions expressed are her own.)

Read more opinion online from Bloomberg View.

To contact the writer of this article:
Susan Crawford at or @scrawford on

To contact the editor of this article:
Michael Newman at


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