Sunday, March 18, 2012

I was right about Google

Last month, I wrote about a concern over a change Google made to its Blogger blogging platform (which powers this blog). Instead of the ordinary URL—such as, amerinz.blogspot.com—the URL is changed to the viewer’s home country TLD or, in the case of this blog for readers in New Zealand (including me), amerinz.blogspot.co.nz.

I thought this was weird, couldn’t find any announcement or explanation of why it was happening, so I asked: “What's the point of this if not to enable country-specific censorship?”

It turns out, I was right. Says Google:
"We are doing this to provide more support for managing content locally. If we receive a removal request that violates local law, that content may no longer be available to readers on local domains where those laws apply. This update is in line with our approach to free expression and controversial content, which hasn’t changed."
Personally, I see this as a logical approach because it allows Google to censor content within only some places, but not globally. So, if one country orders content removed, Google can make sure it’s only removed within that one country.

Google is going farther:
"When content is removed from a blog for any reason, readers attempting to access it will see a message indicating that the content has been removed. A copy of every removal notice we receive relating to Blogger is sent to Chilling Effects for publication on their web site. In addition, we disclose the number and nature of government requests for content removal biannually in our Transparency Report."
In this way, Google is effectively naming and shaming governments that order censorship of blog content. That’s a good thing, because there can’t be many instances when such censorship can be morally justified.

Also, a person can temporarily get around this by adding “ncr” (for “no country re-direct) after the URL So, for my blog, people outside the USA could enter “amerinz.blogspot.com/ncr” to ensure they’re getting everything. I should note that this does nothing about other content restrictions, like YouTube or other videos that can’t be played in all countries for whatever silly reason the restriction is in place. To get around that, you’ll need to anonymise your surfing or mask it as being from another country (there are plenty of resources and instructions for doing that).

This whole thing raises some anomalies. First, people who use custom domains (rather than blogspot) aren’t affected. Also, this messes up search engine ranking, though Google says “We are making every effort to minimize any negative consequences”. Also, third-party plug-ins for comments on blogs presently work only in the dot com domain and no comments show up in country-specific domains.

But the weirdest part of all to me is that the person outside the US who posts something their country orders taken down can post it, but not read it directly.

For New Zealanders, I suspect that this is most likely to involve court suppression orders, which prevent the details about a criminal defendant from being published in New Zealand. Doing so is a crime, but until now there’s been no easy way to block such content within New Zealand. A blogger who posts such information in violation of a suppression order could still be prosecuted for doing so, even if the content isn’t technically visible in New Zealand, and even though Blogger itself isn’t located in New Zealand. A prominent rightwing blogger affiliated with the NZ National Party found this out to his detriment.

What concerns me more is what we can’t know. For example, Gerry Brownlee was given near dictatorial powers for the Canterbury recovery; he could theoretically order suppression of content that isn’t flattering to him. Why he’d be bothered to do that with a single blog post that probably isn’t widely read anyway is beside the point: We should always be wary of making it too easy for governments to hide what they’re doing, let alone taking away people’s freedom of expression.

Still, Google seems to have struck as good a balance between individual liberty and government power as it could. It’s not perfect, it’s a pain for blog readers (and blog owners), but at least it places a small, limited check on the power of governments to censor things. That’s something.

Tip o’ the Hat to Joe.My.God., a site where I haven’t been able to read comments ever since Google started this. To be honest, sometimes that’s not entirely a bad thing for my blood pressure, but it’s also been a lot less fun.


Roger Owen Green said...

When I go to your blog from ABC Wednesday, it has the NZ designation.
When I go to your blog from my old Blogger blog, it does not.

Arthur Schenck said...

That's because I see my own blog through .co.nz and when I copy the URL, it has that in it. All I have to do to is edit it back to .com, or I can also edit the URL to force it to got to the .com version for everyone, regardless of where they live. I didn't realise any of that until yesterday, so from now on the ABC Wednesday links will be to the .com version.