If you Google “Santorum,” you’ll find that two of the top three search results take an unusual angle on the Republican candidate, thanks to sex columnist Dan Savage. (I very nearly used “Santorum” as a Google example in class last semester, and only just thought better of it.) Santorum’s supporters want Google to push the, er, less conventional site further down the rankings, and allege that Google’s failure to do so is political biased. That claim is obviously a load of Santorum, but the situation has drawn more thoughtful responses. Danny Sullivan argues that Google should implement a disclaimer, because kids may search on “Santorum” and be disturbed by what they find, or because they may think Google has a political agenda. (The site has one for “jew,” for example. For a long time, the first result for that search term was to the odious and anti-Semitic JewWatch site.)
This suggestion is well-intentioned but flatly wrong. I’m not an absolutist: I like how Google handled the problem of having a bunch of skinheads show up as a top result for “jew.” But I don’t want Google as the Web police, though many disagree. Should the site implement a disclaimer if you search for “Tommy Lee Pamela Anderson”? (Warning: sex tape.) If you search for “flat earth theory,” should Google tell you that you are potentially a moron? I don’t think so. Disclaimers should be the nuclear option for Google – partly so they continue to attract attention, and partly because they move Google from a primarily passive role as filter to a more active one as commentator. I generally like my Web results without knowing what Google thinks about them.
Evgeny Morozov has made a similar suggestion, though along different lines: he wants Google to put up a banner or signal when someone searches for links between vaccines and autism, or proof that the Pentagon / Israelis / Santa Claus was behind the 9/11 attacks. I’m more sympathetic to Evgeny’s idea, but I would limit banners or disclaimers to situations that meet two criteria. First, the facts of the issue must be clear-cut: pi is not equal to three (and no one really thinks so), and the planet is indisputably getting warmer. And second, the issue must be one that is both currently relevant and with significant consequences. The flat earthers don’t count; the anti-vaccine nuts do. (People who fail to immunize their children not only put them at risk; they put their classmates and friends at risk, too.) Lastly, I think there’s importance to having both a sense of humor and a respect for discordant, even false speech. The Santorum thing is darn funny. And, in the political realm, we have a laudable history of tolerating false or inflammatory speech, because we know the perils of censorship. So, keeping spreading Santorum!
Danielle, Frank, and the other CoOp folks have kindly let me hang around their blog like a slovenly houseguest, and I’d like to thank them for it. See you soon!
Cross-posted at Info/Law.