Google's censors really sorry about violating freedom of speech

If a YouTube video gets yanked, if a Blogger blog gets deleted, if a website disappears from Google's search results, chances are Google lawyer Nicole Wong had something to do with it. Wong has kept a low profile, aside from the occasional post on Google's official blog, but after a profile in Sunday's New York Times Magazine, it's likely she'll be hearing more pleas than ever from frustrated users whose works have vanished from Google's sprawling Web empire.

Google's corporate motto is "don't be evil." It's increasingly a burden, as Google expands its reach into more countries and more industries. Years ago, Google cofounder Sergey Brin used to walk the don't-be-evil beat personally. "Evil is what Sergey says is evil," CEO Eric Schmidt told Wired in 2003. Evil, then, did not include bowing to China's regime of Internet censorship, a decision Brin made after reading a half-dozen books on Chinese politics and history he ordered on Amazon.com.

Evil at Google is more nuanced today, and requires three lawyers. But the same justification for kowtowing to China's Communists generally rules today: The world is better off with a bowdlerized Google than no Google at all. Wong, a deputy general counsel, works with lawyer Andrew McLaughlin and general counsel Kent Walker, touts her free-speech credentials. Wong and Walker pursued journalism in college; McLaughlin fought against a U.S. Internet-censorship law, the Communications Decency Act.

The acquisition of YouTube has complicated matters for Wong. Though Google lawyers like to talk about its online-video site as if it were just hosting a bring-your-own-clips party, in the eyes of most governments, YouTube is acting like a TV network — and they're quite accustomed to censoring broadcasters. That keeps Wong busy deciding whether a video deemed offensive to Kemal Ataturk, the founder of the modern Turksih state, can be displayed in that country, or whether a protest clip breaks Thailand's lèse-majesté law.

It's a job she'd just as soon not have. Far from reveling in her power as de facto censor of the Internet, or glorying in her role as a champion of free speech, she'd just as soon have censorship farmed off to an algorithm. Google's preferred solution is to have bureaucrats in censorious countries generate lists of offensive URLs for it servers to weed out automatically.

Perhaps that's just as well. Wong isn't doing the heavy lifting of blocking Internet content on behalf of governments; that falls on 20something "reviewers" who manually review complaints about YouTube videos and Blogger posts. The Times profile of Wong doesn't reveal anything about their journalistic credentials, but given career prospects in the field, we wouldn't be surprised if there weren't a few J-school types in their ranks.

That's the reality Wong, I suspect, really would rather not address: Google's censors are real human beings. We just don't know anything about them. And yet they know all about us.

(Photo by Bart Nagel for Google)