Google as Regulator, Part Deux

A recent story, reported for example by the Globe and Mail, nicely illustrates Google’s dual, and perhaps ambiguous, role as “speaker and censor,” at once exercising, or claiming to exercise, an editorial judgment and making itself he agent of speech-restricting governments, about which I blogged some time ago. According to the Globe, “Google’s search algorithm will begin demoting websites that are frequently reported for copyright violations, a move that will likely make it more difficult to find file-sharing, Torrent and so-called file locker sites.” These websites will not be removed from search results, but they will be harder to find.

This is, it seems to me, an obvious example of “editorial judgment,” which – as I explain in more detail in the post linked to above – Google claims to exercise when designing its search algorithms. At the same time, it is an an example of Google acting, in effect, as a regulator, if not, in this case, as a censor. The decision to demote allegedly-copyright-infringing websites is not, one suspects, motivated by commercial considerations; at least not immediately commercial considerations, since, as the Globe puts it, the move “should please Hollywood” – and other content producers – and perhaps Google considers pleasing them as an investment that will pay off. Google’s state reason for this decision is that it will “help users find legitimate, quality sources of content more easily” (my emphasis). One usually associates concerns for legitimacy with public authorities rather than private corporations.

Indeed, some might want Google to take an even more public-spirited position. As Deven Desai, of the Thomas Jefferson School of Law, notes in a post on Concurring Opinions, “this shift may open the door to more arguments for Google to be a gatekeeper and policer of content.” Indeed, although he does not favour such an approach, he points out that it is a “difficult question … why or why not act on some issues but not others.” Why, for example, copyright infringement but not hate speech? For now, even Google might lack the data and/or content-analyzing capacities effectively to recognize hate speech. But given how fast technology evolves, this might change sooner rather than later. As prof. Desai observes, if Google becomes a more overt internet regulator, it will be criticized, for example from a competition-law standpoint. But of course it will also be criticized if it refuses to take on that role.

Either way, there will be a lot of interesting questions for lawyers. At what point does Google, acting as a quasi-regulator, become a state agent subject to constitutional constraints? How does competition law, and its prohibition on abuse of a dominant position, interact with the constitutional protection of freedom of speech, if the latter encompasses Google’s freedom of editorial judgment about its algorithm? What sort of due process rights do or should people affected by Google’s editorial decisions have – and what legal framework – for example, administrative or maybe tort law – is appropriate for settling this question? This is a lot to think about. No answers from me for now.

Google, Speaker and Censor

Some recent stories highlight Google’s ambiguous role as provider and manager of content, which, from a free-speech perspective, puts at it at once in the shoes of both a speaker potentially subject to censorship and an agent of the censors.

The first of these is an interesting exchange between Eugene Volokh, of UCLA and the Volokh Conspiracy, and Tim Wu, of Harvard. Back in April, prof. Volokh and a lawyer from California, Donald Falk, published a “White Paper” commissioned by Google, arguing that search results produced by Google and its competitors are covered by the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which protects freedom of speech. The crux of their argument is that “search engines select and sort the results in a way that is aimed at giving users what the search engine companies see as the most  helpful and useful information” (3). This is an “editorial judgment,” similar to other editorial judgments – that of a newspaper publisher selecting and arranging news stories, letters from readers, and editorials, or a guidebook editor choosing which restaurants or landmarks to include and review and which to omit. The fact that the actual selecting and sorting of the internet search results is done by computer algorithms rather by human beings is of no import. It “is necessary given the sheer volume of information that search engines must process, and given the variety of queries that users can input,” but technology does not matter: the essence of the decision is the same whether it is made by men or by machines (which, in any event, are designed and programmed by human engineers with editorial objectives in mind).

In a recent op-ed in the New York Times, prof. Wu challenges the latter claim. For him, it matters a lot whether we are speaking of choices made by human beings or by computers. Free speech protections are granted to people, sentient beings capable of thought and opinion. Extending them to corporations is disturbing, and doing so to machines would be a mistake.

As a matter of legal logic, there is some similarity among Google, [a newspaper columnist], Socrates and other providers of answers. But if you look more closely, the comparison falters. Socrates was a man who died for his views; computer programs are utilitarian instruments meant to serve us. Protecting a computer’s “speech” is only indirectly related to the purposes of the First Amendment, which is intended to protect actual humans against the evil of state censorship.

And it does not matter that computer algorithms are designed by humans. A machine can no more “inherit” the constitutional rights of its creator than Dr. Frankenstein’s monster.

Prof. Volokh responds to the arguments in a blog post. He thinks it is a mistake to treat the intervention of the algorithm as an entirely new event that breaks the constitutional protection to which editorial decisions of human beings are entitled. The algorithms  are only tools; their decisions are not autonomous, but reflect the choices of their designers. To the extent that similar choices by human beings are prohibited or regulated, they remain so if made by computers; but to the extent they are constitutionally protected – and it is a large one – the interposition of an algorithm should not matter at all.

This is only a bare-bones summary of the arguments; they are worth a careful reading. Another caveat is that the constitutional analysis might be somewhat different in Canada, since our law is somewhat less protective of free speech than its American counterpart. However, I do not think that these differences, however significant they are in some cases, would or should matter here.

The argument prof. Volokh articulates on Google’s behalf reflects its concern about having its own speech regulated. That concern is one it shares with the traditional media to which prof. Volokh repeatedly compares it. But Google is also different from traditional media, in that it serves as a host or conduit to all manner of content which it neither created nor even vetted. It is different too in being (almost) omnipresent, and thus subject to the regulation and pressure of governments the world over. For this reason, is often asked to act as an agent of the regulators or censors of the speech of others to which it links or which its platforms host – and, as much as it presents itself as a speaker worried about censorship of its own speech, it often enough accepts. It provides some of the details – numbers mostly, and a selection of examples – in its “Transparency Report.” To be sure, much of the content that Google accepts to remove is, in one way or another, illegal – for example defamatory, or contrary to hate speech legislation. And as a private company, Google does not necessarily owe it to anyone to link to or host his or her content. Still, when its decisions not to do so are motivated not by commercial considerations, but by requests of government agencies – and not necessarily courts, but police and other executive agencies too – its position becomes more ambiguous. For example, one has to wonder whether there is a risk of a conflict of interest between its roles as speaker and censors’ agent – whether it will not be tempted to trade greater compliance with the regulators’ demands when it comes to others’ content for greater leeway when it comes to its own.

More about Election Law

There are two things to mention today, both related to election law, and more specifically to restrictions on “third-party” speech in the pre-electoral context.

First, Radio-Canada reports that Québec’s Chief Electoral Officer has been in touch with the leaders of the student organizations who are protesting the tuition fee hikes announced by the provincial government. The protesters are angry at Premier Jean Charest and the Québec Liberal Party and have made no secret of their desire to help defeat them when the next election is called – there was speculation that it might happen this spring, but the fall now seems more likely. Well, as I have argued in an op-ed that Cyberpresse published in mid-April, the expenses the protesters will incur during an eventual election campaign will be covered – and severely limited, indeed almost to the point of being prohibited – by the draconian third-party spending provisions of Québec’s Election Act. Radio-Canada quotes the Chief Electoral Officer’s spokesperson as saying that the “objective was not to prevent [the protesters] from expressing themselves. The goal was to make sure that they comply with the law.” The trouble is, the effect of the law will be to prevent the protesters from expressing their views. As I said here already, Québec’s law was intended to prevent the rich from capturing the democratic process, but operates to silence not only the rich, but also those who are not well-off, while shielding the incumbent politicians from criticism by political outsiders.

And second, NYU’s Richard A. Epstein has an interesting (albeit asininely entitled) essay responding to Jeffrey Toobin’s story of the U.S. Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision. As before,  I will avoid discussing the merits of the Citizens United decision itself (though I find prof. Epstein’s essay well-argued, as I did a lecture he gave at NYU in September 2010; at least, a good criticism of Citizens United would need to address the points prof. Epstein makes). I want to mention, however, that prof. Epstein is skeptical of the distinction that Mr. Toobin sought to make between “electioneering” by means of TV advertisements and books. He writes that

Toobin … fights against modern technology when he seeks to draw a hard and fast line between “the pervasive influence of television advertising on electoral politics” and books that operate “in a completely different way,” given that individuals have to make an “affirmative choice to acquire and read a book.”

Oh? Thanks to the internet, books can be excerpted and transmitted in a thousand different ways online to consumers who need only a single click to ignore messages they don’t like. Given the vast reduction in cost in the production of information, it seems positively odd to ban, or even regulate, one form of dissemination while allowing other forms to survive unregulated.

His conclusion, of course, is not that we should censor books, but that we should not restrict other forms of “electioneering” either. That’s pretty much what I argued in my previous post on this topic. The distinction between books and TV ads is not obvious, and indeed probably not tenable. Canadian election legislation makes it, exempting (some) books from its application, but it is not a principled distinction. The principle underlying our law would in fact allow censorship of books (indeed it already allows censorship of some books, as I explained), and that suggests that this principle is misguided.

UPDATE: The Globe also has a story about the Chief Electoral Officer’s warning to student organizations. It emphasizes limits on individual contributions to electoral campaigns, but I think this emphasis is misplaced. The real problem is not with contribution limits, but with those on third-party spending.

Rants and Freedoms

Some university students think the lecturer whose class they are taking is doing a lousy job. Someone creates a hyperbolically-named Facebook group to rant; others join; a few post derogatory messages on the group’s wall. So far, so normal. But, after the semester ends and the lecturer, for reasons unknown, is no longer employed by the university, she somehow learns of the Facebook group, and complains to the university’s authorities. A kangaroo court is held, and finds the members of the group ― including those who posted no messages at all, and those whose messages were quite innocuous ― guilty of “non-academic misconduct.” Some of the students are required to write an apology letter to the former lecturer and put on probation. An appeal to a higher university instance is fruitless, and the university’s Board of Governors refuses to hear a further appeal. Judicial review and an appeal ensue.

That’s the scary story of Keith and Steven Pridgen, (former) students at the University of Calgary, whose right to rant the Alberta Court of Appeal vindicated in a recent decision. One has to hope that it will serve as a lesson for professors and university administrators (as well as teachers and school principals) in the future. Students, in case such people forget, have always ranted about their professors, and always will. It’s not always nice, and it’s not always fair; get over it. (This is, as much as anything else, a note to self as an aspiring academic.) The fact that rants now leave a digital record does not change anything, it seems to me: just because they used to circulate (and of course still circulate) by word of mouth, rants were no less pervasive and durable in the past. Stories about professors are handed over from one cohort of students to the next; they are an ineradicable part of university’s environment.

Legally, the Alberta Court of Appeal is interesting in a number of ways. Each of the three judges wrote a separate opinion. They all agree in finding the university’s decision unreasonable  and hence invalid on administrative law grounds, because the university’s decision bore little, if any, relationship with the evidence it ought to have been based on ― evidence of harm to the lecturer, or of the specific actions of each accused student. Justice O’Ferrall also finds that the utter failure to consider the students’ free speech rights contributes to making the decision unreasonable. The judges disagree, however, on whether to address the other issue debated by the parties (and several interveners) – the applicability of the Charter, and its guarantee of freedom of expression.

Justice Paperny thinks the question deserves to be addressed, since it was debated at length by the parties and is important; her colleagues disagree, because it is not necessary to the resolution of the case (since it can be resolved on administrative law grounds) and important constitutional questions should not be addressed unless it is necessary to do so. Both arguments have merit; I’m not sure on whose side I would have come out if I had to vote. Justice Paperny devotes much of her opinion to arguing that the Charter does indeed apply to universities, at least in their disciplinary dealings with their students. Her review of the case law is comprehensive, her argument about the universities’ and the government’s roles in contemporary society sometimes sweeping. And it is persuasive (and Justice Paperny’s colleagues, one senses, do not actually disagree with its substance).

One final thought. The court did not pause to consider whether the university even had the power to punish students for something they wrote on Facebook. Yet it seems to me that it’s a crucial jurisdictional question. (Needless to say, the university did not consider it either.) I can see why a university might be interested in what is being said in its lecture halls, or online on forums it maintains (in connection with courses for example). It does have an interest in maintaining a welcoming, respectful learning environment, although arguably this interest does not play out in the same way as a school’s, since everyone at a university is an adult and is there by choice. But does this interest give a university the right to police the conduct of its students off-campus or online? I think not; but in any case, it’s too bad the court did not ask itself the question.

Are Provincial Election Spending Restrictions Ultra Vires?

Here’s a simple, crazy question: is legislation limiting electoral campaign expenses unconstitutional because ultra vires the provinces? I think that the argument in support of an affirmative answer makes sense, even though I wouldn’t expect Canadian courts to buy it. Here it is.

Campaign spending restrictions restrict free speech on political matters. Nobody disputes that, and the Supreme Court recognizes this in cases such Libman v. Quebec (Attorney General), [1997] 3 S.C.R. 569. Nonetheless, such laws (if not too restrictive – as the law in Libman was found to be) can be justified under s. 1 of the Charter, and are therefore constitutional. Or are they?

In the “implied bill of rights” cases, starting with the Alberta Statutes Reference, [1938] R.C.S. 100, the Supreme Court pushed back against attempts by the provinces (first Alberta and then Québec) to curtail political speech disagreeable to authoritarian provincial governments. As there was no Charter then, it used the federal division of powers to ground its judgments. Speech, especially political speech, was said to be within the exclusive competence of Parliament, outside the reach of provincial legislation. Whatever its subject, it was not of merely provincial importance. In the words of Chief Justice Duff and Justice Davis in the Alberta Statutes Reference, at p. 134,

[a]ny attempt to abrogate this right of public debate or to suppress the traditional forms of the exercise of the right (in public meeting and through the press) would, in our opinion, be incompetent to the legislatures of the provinces, or to the legislature of any one of the provinces, as repugnant to the provisions of The British North America Act, by which the Parliament of Canada is established as the legislative organ of the people of Canada under the Crown, and Dominion legislation enacted pursuant to the legisla­tive authority given by those provisions. The subject matter of such legislation could not be described as a pro­vincial matter purely; as in substance exclusively a matter of property and civil rights within the province, or a matter private or local within the province.

Saumur v. City of Québec [1953] 2 S.C.R. 299 and Switzman v. Elbing [1957] S.C.R. 285 are to the same effect.

Overruling such hallowed precedents, showing the Supreme Court’s commitment to individual rights even in the absence of explicit constitutional authorization, seems unthinkable.

Can they be distinguished? One might argue that regulation of provincial elections, as opposed to political speech generally, is a different subject, competent to the provinces. I think the distinction fails. The passage I quote above does not really leave room for it. Provincial politics and federal politics are obviously connected, so if federal political discussion is to be free, so must provincial political discussion. But there is another possibility. It is at least a somewhat plausible reading of the “implied bill of rights” cases that what they prohibit is not any regulation of political speech by the provinces, but only, to use an American term, “viewpoint restrictions.” A province can regulate speech; it just cannot single out one opinion for unfavourable treatment. And it is perhaps arguable, though I believe (for reasons I have no room to elaborate here but touch on in my Cyberpresse op-ed) not correct, that campaign spending restrictions are viewpoint neutral. If that argument fails, as I think it should, then provincial restrictions on election spending are ultra vires and thus unconstitutional.