"The first people totalitarians destroy or silence are men of ideas and free minds." ~ Isaiah Berlin
The ALA, Google, and the Passion for Censorship
In his keynote speech at the American Library Association midwinter meeting in San Antonio, Texas, Romanian-born writer Andrei Codrescu surprised his sponsors by strongly criticizing ALA executives for denying support to their harassed colleagues at Cuba's independent libraries.
Codrescu did not mince his words when he asserted that, "it was with a great deal of dismay that I learned that the American Library Association has taken no action to condemn the imprisonment of librarians, the banning of books, the repression of expression, and the torture of dissidents only 90 miles away from our shores, in Cuba."
After explaining briefly the story of the repression of Cuba's independent librarians, and the ALA's excuse for not backing them -- according to ALA's executives, they are not librarians at all --, Codrescu discussed the very definition of "librarian". He started the discussion with a question: "How is a librarian better than a mouse click?"
According to Codrescu, the role of the librarian is nothing more than a facilitator of books to the readers, and he mentioned Google as an outstanding example of the ideal librarian, providing the reader access to all types of unfiltered, uncensored information. But he pointed out that the comparison was unfair, because "the machine never gets tired and doesn't waste time caring about the quality of the information". Codrescu believes that someone who gives out books is a librarian.
Surprisingly, most of the allegedly freedom-of-speech-loving ALA members were outraged. Codrescu's words touched a raw nerve. Most ALA members believe that Cuba's independent librarians are just "book lenders", while they see themselves a step above, as people who care about the quality of the information they provide to the readers. That explains why ALA executives have been systematically siding with the Cuban government in claiming that Cuba's independent librarians are not librarians at all. It seems that, according to the ALA's convoluted logic, only librarians approved by the ALA and the Cuban government deserve that title.
In the days following the convention, several ALA members wrote articles criticizing Codrescu's ideas. In her article "Librarians struggle to define their roles" (The Berkeley Voice, march 3, 2006), Julie Wilkenstein, a San Francisco Bay Area librarian and ALA member, continued the debate and, after stating that Codrescu was wrong, advanced her ALA-sponsored view of librarians as people who worry "about the quality of their information", as well as "protectors" and "selectors" of "information".
Apparently she failed to notice that all the words she used in her description of ALA-approved librarians are nothing but euphemisms for censors. No wonder American librarians at the ALA have a soft spot in the bottom of their hearts for Fidel Castro, Cuba's main and for-life censor. But, more important, who gave the arrogant censors at ALA the right, the authority, or the power to determine who in Cuba is or is not a librarian? Also, if the Cuban independent librarians decide not to follow the ALA's rules, are they going to ask President Bush to send in the Marines to invade the island to enforce their rules?
The Castro lovers at the ALA may see themselves as liberals and progressives. They seem very reactionaries and regressives to me.
Though Codrescu was right in his criticism of ALA's hypocritical policies (ALA Policy 58.3 states that "Threats to the freedom of expression of any person become threats to the freedom of all . . . ."), he was wrong on one count: mentioning Google as an example of the ideal non-biased librarian. Perhaps Codrescu was not aware of Google's secret activities of lately. Had he been so, he may have discovered that Google is not an innocent bystander in the battle for the free flow of ideas. Actually it seems that the folks at Google are trying harder to get the censorship banner from the hands of the ALA and become themselves the new self-appointed leaders of the people-who-worry-about-the-quality-of-the-information, aka censors.
In January 24 of this year, AP reported that "Online search engine leader Google has agreed to censor its results in China, adhering to the country's free-speech restrictions in return for better access in the internet's fastest growing market." According to the news, Google will launch a version of its search and news sites in China that will include some dark features. Google's site will censor its search and news materials according to China's totalitarian government standards.
The repulsive fact shows that the liberal and progressive folks at Google have no ethical problem whatsoever in applying censorship for profit. On the other hand, perhaps the news is only the bit of evidence that confirms beyond any reasonable doubt some people's suspicions about what the progressive Google folks (the company's motto is "Don't be Evil") have been doing all the time for fun. Contrary to what most people believe, Google is not a blind, unbiased searching tool for gathering information without any ideological criteria. For example, according to the JunkYard Blogger, a search on "images.google" does show a bias against Christian related images.
Google's decision to apply censorship to its site in China infuriated many Google users in the U.S. Some of them are so upset that they have been calling for a boycott on Google. If one is to believe Umbria Inc., a market research company in Boulder, Colorado, that tracks blog postings about businesses, a huge peak in negative online comments related to Google and censorship was detected in the web immediately after the China deal was known. A good information about Google's censorship activities can be found at www.google-watch.org, a site devoted to keep a vigilant eye on "Google's monopoly, algorithms, and privacy policies."
There are other reasons, however, to be concerned about Google's goals. In mid-2005 Google closed deals with several university libraries, among them Stanford, Harvard, and U. Michigan, to digitize some or all of their collections. The contracts have some nondisclosure constraints. In every single page of them is prominently printed the word "Confidential", and there is a whole section about confidentiality.
The ALA raised justified hell when it was mentioned that under some parts of the new antiterrorism laws librarians may be forced to provide information to the FBI, the Office of Homeland (in)Security, or other government agencies about the persons accessing certain books. But people concerned about the readers' privacy, found in Google's site that the company reserves the right to do anything it wants with the information they (illegally or just unethically) collect from the readers. Obviously, this goes against the policies allegedly supported by the ALA.
It is safe to surmise that, once most books -- particularly the out of print and difficult to find ones -- have been digitized, most libraries, under the pressure of lack of space and low personnel budgets, will end up by getting rid of most printed books of which digitized versions are available. As I mentioned before, Google's goal is to eventually digitize all books. Given Google's passion for censorship, and ALA's irregular application of its policies (ALA is only against censors they don't like), book censorship may become a common thing.
In his novel 1984, Orwell envisioned a totalitarian future in which the censors working at the Ministry of Truth altered, using old fashion cut and paste techniques, newspapers, magazines and books, to create fake pages with the "politically correct" content. Then the old, problematic pages were thrown through a "memory hole" to the incinerators. But, If Google's plans materialize, the censors' job would be a lot easier. Not only they will track everyone accessing a book, the same way they are doing now with everyone who searches for a particular subject using their search engine, leaving a recorded track for the censors to take reprisals, but censorship by alteration or elimination of content will be just a click away.
It is sad to discover that the attacks on freedom of expression in this country come not only from the usual suspects, but from some freedom-haters masquerading as freedom-lovers as well. Unfortunately, as bad as it is, this is not the end of the story. It seems that now the "progressive" folks at Google are currently working on going all the way in pursuing their goal of becoming the Internet's main censor.
According to a press report that appeared on April 20 in an Israeli trade magazine, Google announced it has acquired a new, advanced text search algorithm invented by an Israeli studying at Sydney's University of New South Wales. The algorithm, called Orion, offers a list of topics directly related to the original search and only reveals the sites with enough words reasonably linked to one another and relevant to the search, according to a report in the Israeli business magazine The Marker.
There is a problem, however, and it is that the total content on one particular page usually does not have enough data, in and of itself, to reflect the concepts dealt with a particular article, academic paper, or book, and thus it will not be easy to realize the true relevance of that page, particularly when the browser is a dumb computer algorithm based on an arcane, artificial system of ranking, and not a specialist in the subject.
That gives some relevance to a joke an anonymous anti-Google prankster posted online:
WARNING: The Surgeon General has determined that Google's ranking practices are dangerous to the development of creative and critical thinking.
Nevertheless, there is an even more ominous Orwellian side revealed. According to the report, "Orion also rates the texts by quality of the site in which they appear." Now, as everybody knows, quality is a very elusive, even subjective, characteristic of products. Long time ago, I heard a market specialist define it as "a characteristic of a product when it has been made with love." Then how is Google's Orion going to determine the quality of the site on which a particular text appears? For the time being, in totalitarian countries like China, Korea, or Cuba, to Google a high quality site will be one in which no criticism to the government appears.
At the time of its apparition, Google was an extraordinary tool in the hands of the people. Contrary to a great percentage of the population, who crave for the information Pablum offered by the mass media, internet users look for unfiltered, uncensored information. They prefer to be their own filters of information rather than allowing self-elected censors do this job for them. That explains Google's initial instant success.
But Google's owners became greedy, and discovered that, just by slightly tweaking the search algorithms, they could make appear some sites addresses in the first page of a search . . . and charge for it. This, of course, had a negative impact on the impartiality of a search. A site owner I know complained that some years ago his site always appeared on the first page of a Google site, but not any more. Google users may have noticed that lately most of Google searches only bring out a lot of commercial garbage.
But, if annoying, this is not the true problem to be concerned about. If the liberal, progressive folks at Google can tweak the search algorithm -- and now we know for sure that they can and have been doing it --, and -- as the China deal indicates -- they are ethically and morally challenged, what kind of self-restraint can prohibit them to secretly change their motto to a new one: "Be Evil!"
I guess that, considering themselves liberal progressives, most ALA members and Google employees are strongly anti-Bush. But given the totalitarian bend and the passion for censorship of the Bush administration, I am sure Bush and his neo-con friends see both the ALA and Google as some of their potential strongest supporters in the implementation of their totalitarian wet dreams.
Farfetched? Perhaps not too much. In his speech "Heil Moskau!" of 21 November 1927, (Der Angriff. Aufs'tze aus der Kampfzeit, Munich: Zentralverlag der NSDAP., 1935), pp. 236-238), Joseph Goebbels urged Germans to leave the Communist Party and join the Nazis. The Nazi Propaganda Minister and psy-op guru knew very well that is was not difficult to turn a Communist into a Fascist. As he predicted, many Communists left their party and joined the Nazis.
--------------- (Both China and Cuba strictly enforce a policy of total censorship over the Internet, and limit the access to it only to government-authorized citizens.) ---------------