Over at the EconLog, David Henderson has an interesting post that allows me to come back to some themes I used to carp on quite a bit, but haven’t returned to in a while now. In a nutshell, it is the story of antiwar.com, a website that, naturally enough, illustrates its message with some graphic imagery. Google concluded that the images contravened its policies, and withdrew the ads it placed on the website, causing the website to lose revenue on which they had relied. Apparently, Google does not want its ads to appear next to any picture that would not be “okay for a child in any region of the world to see,” which would disqualify many iconic pictures taken in wars past ― and not just wars, one might surmise.
Prof. Henderson points out that this is not “censorship,” since Google is a private firm acting in a purely commercial capacity here. But, he argues, this is still a “gamble” on Google’s part:
Google faces a tradeoff. On the one hand, there are probably many advertisers, possibly the vast majority, who don’t want their ads to appear alongside pictures of blood and gore, people being tortured, etc. So by being careful that web sites where ads appear do not have such pictures, Google gets more ad revenue than otherwise. On the other hand, Google is upsetting a lot of people who see it as dictating content. This will cause some people to shun Google. … [I]f the upset spreads, there could be a role for another competitor.
Perhaps so, although as I noted before, Google’s competitors ― such as Apple, with its iTunes store ― also seem to be choosing to use their own platforms to present sanitized versions of reality.
And as I also pointed out in the past, Google’s position with respect to freedom of expression is inherently conflicted. On the one hand, Google sees itself as engaged in the business of expression, arguing that its search algorithms reflect choices of an editorial nature that deserve constitutional protection. On the other, when it exercises control over its various platforms (whether the search engine itself or YouTube, the ad service, etc.), it can, and is frequently asked to, act as an agent for governments ― and not only democratic governments either ― who seek to censor expression they dislike. There is a danger that Google will choose to sacrifice some of its users’ freedom in order to protect its own by ingratiating itself with these governments. Furthermore, Google may be coming under pressure, not only from governments, but also from commercial partners it needs to keep on board ― or at bay ― and, possibly, from various “civil society” actors too, in exercising control over its platforms. The antiwar.com story is only one small part of this broader trend.
This is, or should be, well understood ― which makes me think that Google is not the only party in this story who took a gamble. Antiwar.com did too, as does anyone else who comes to rely on Google or other similar platforms, despite knowing the pressures, commercial and otherwise, that these platforms will come under. If anything, it is remarkable how successful this gamble usually turns out to be. Still, it is a bet, and will sometimes turn out badly.
I blogged last year about an argument by Ethan Zuckerman to the effect that the ad-based business model was the internet’s “original sin.” Mr. Zuckerman made his case from the perspective of the users, who must accept privacy losses resulting from tracking and profiling by advertisers in exchange for free access to ad-supported content. The antiwar.com story suggests that, for some content-producers at least, accepting the revenue and, as prof. Henderson points out, the convenience that come with the current business model and its major players was also a Faustian bargain. And yet, as for users, it is not quite clear what alternative arrangement would be viable.
In the face of what some may well be tempted to interpret as a market failure, it seems reasonable to expect calls for regulation, despite what libertarian types such prof. Henderson or the antiwar.com people themselves may say. There will be, and indeed, as I noted in the post about Apple linked to above, there already are, people calling for the regulation of online platforms, in order to make their behaviour conform to the regulators’ ideas about freedom of expression. Yet we should not forget that, on the whole, the net contribution of Google and the rest of them to our ability to express ourselves and to find and access the thoughts of others has clearly been positive ― and certainly much more positive than that of governments. While attempts at making a good thing even better would be understandable, they too would be gamble, and a risky one.