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Breitbart’s Misleading Claims of Google “Censorship”

Breitbart recently published a leaked March 2018 presentation given at Google, which it describes as “bombshell” evidence of Google’s “abandonment of free speech.” According to Breitbart, Google believes that “the ‘American tradition’ of free speech on the internet is no longer viable.”

The Breitbart report has now circulated widely in the “right-wing” digital media, where it has been described as showing “how [Google] justifies censoring users,” that it “wants to censor the web,” and that Google is making a “case against online free speech.”  In reacting to the Breitbart report in this way, they are following the lead given by the author of the piece, Allum Bokhari, when he states in an accompanying video that “for conservatives and populists who are identified again and again in this briefing as the justification for online censorship, this is nothing less than the greatest existential threat they have ever faced.”

The stakes of the allegation are high. Breitbart suggests that if Google and other tech platforms suppress content, this “arguably should open tech platforms up to immense legal risk.” They invoke Senator Ted Cruz’s argument that Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act provides that only internet platforms that are content neutral are immune from liability for user content. (Actually, a direct reading of Section 230 suggests that Cruz misrepresents the legislation: it specifically offers immunity to services that restrict access to any material they find objectionable for any reason.) Furthermore, the allegation that various tech companies are “censors” plays into the hands of politicians who threaten antitrust action against the companies on the ground that they unfairly suppress “conservative” content.

Breitbart ignores Google’s effort to assess its own errors in this section, but it takes pains to cherry-pick details that can be used to paint Google as an unapologetic villain.
Most people won’t bother to read the eighty-five-page Google presentation for themselves. But the Breitbart report didn’t pass my personal “sniff test” for news: the idea that a major publicly-traded information tech company would come out against the First Amendment strained credulity. So I took a careful look at the entire Google presentation for myself. Of course it is impossible to know how these slides were presented by the speaker. But if we go only by the slides, it appears that the Breitbart reporter has cherry-picked quotations and dropped their context in a way that seriously misrepresents the message of the presentation. As I read the Google presentation, much of what Breitbart highlights is crafted not to clarify Google’s message but to inflame the sensitivities of Breitbart’s audience. Especially given the largely uncritical reception of the report by the “right wing” media, this should raise red flags for the idea that Breitbart’s crusade against bias in Silicon Valley is somehow motivated by a genuine concern for the truth.

First, the Breitbart report entirely ignores the substance of the first section of the Google presentation, “The importance of free speech” (pages 7-18), which highlights the value of personal liberty and the danger of censorship. The presentation does go on to say that there have been calls for “censorship” in response to a variety of global events (from the US 2016 election to the broadcast of police shootings on Facebook Live). But at no point in discussing these examples do the presentation slides appear to endorse these calls.

The few points from this section that Breitbart does spotlight are presented in a highly misleading way. For instance, Breitbart claims that the presentation “admits that Google, along with Twitter and Facebook, now ‘control the majority of online conversations.’” Put this way, the line comes across as a boast about the ability to suppress the exchange of ideas. But the full sentence conveys a very different meaning: “This free speech ideal was instilled in the DNA of the Silicon Valley startups that now control the majority of our online conversations.” The presenter is stressing the importance of ideals that motivated the companies who everyone knows do host most online discussion. Breitbart has twisted this excerpt, playing to its readers’ fears.

There is a crucial difference between a private media company’s decision about which messages it wants to promote, and the decision of a government to forcibly prohibit messages with certain kinds of content.
Breitbart readers fear that they will lose the ability to speak their minds online. So when the report states that the Google presentation explains calls for censorship by citing the “bad behavior” of users, readers infer that Google sees them as the bad users who need to be suppressed. But Breitbart’s report conveniently overlooks the fact that the “bad behavior” cited is not just that of users, but also that of governments and tech companies — including Google (pages 25, 35-49). It speaks of “worrying signs of new government encroachments” (page 40), noting that sometimes the companies’ own “bad behavior” is itself in response to government pressure to self-censor (page 43). But the report doesn’t blame all of companies’ “bad behavior” on government: it criticizes the companies for responding to political pressure in an inconsistent, nontransparent, and reactionary way (pages 47-48). This hardly sounds like an endorsement of government encroachments or an excuse for giving in to their pressure; it sounds instead like a company engaging in genuine soul-searching about whether it has helped make a bad situation worse.

Breitbart ignores Google’s effort to assess its own errors in this section, but it takes pains to cherry-pick details that can be used to paint Google as an unapologetic villain. Breitbart notes that the section “approvingly” quotes from Sarah Jeong, the New York Times reporter “infamous for her hate speech against white males” (page 45). But Breitbart never shares her actual quotation, which, like Breitbart, is critical of tech firms for “commercializing” online conversation: “For a business, free speech can only be a meaningful value if it doesn’t really cost anything.” Breitbart also defends President Trump’s claim that Google rigs its autocomplete results (page 49) by citing a report about Google’s political bias. But the report has nothing to do with autocomplete results. Neither of these points helps answer the question of what Google thinks about free speech, but they are well-placed to elicit reactions from readers who hate Sarah Jeong and love Donald Trump.

The Breitbart report closes by correctly describing the Google presentation’s contention that tech companies have been trying to maintain a balance between “two incompatible positions,” the “American tradition” that “prioritizes free speech for democracy, not civility,” and the “European tradition” that “favors dignity over liberty, and civility over freedom.” It correctly describes the presentation’s observation that in recent years, tech firms have shifted in the direction of the European model. But Breitbart does not mention that the presentation goes on to observe that users and governments are challenging this new model and that these challenges come not just from commentators on the “right” but also from numerous “mainstream” media outlets (pages 75-76). At the end of that section, the presentation concludes that the companies’ response has created an “unresolved tension” (page 77). Again, this is hardly a ringing endorsement of Google’s alleged tilting in the direction of the European model.

The Breitbart report summarily skips over the final section of the Google presentation. This section, framed by the question “How do people want Google to respond to the predicament?,” begins by claiming that “The answer is not ‘find the right amount of censorship’ and stick to it.” It does say that Google can’t satisfy everyone but offers advice for finding the proper path forward. Breitbart and its followers have implied or asserted that the Google presentation advocates barring from its platforms ideas that Google’s leadership disagrees with. But it’s only in this last section where any recommendations are mentioned, though these are recommendations quoted from advisors, not official Google recommendations. Those recommendations include: don’t take sides, police tone instead of content, enforce standards and policies clearly, give better sign posts, etc. These are far from calls for ideological filters.

If the Breitbart report is any indication of the existing quality of its reporting, it has a long way to go before earning the attention and respect of more objective reporters.
The Google presentation does document that tech companies are tightening their terms of service to prohibit hateful harassment, actively curating search results and ads to deemphasize pornography and payday loans, and increasing the number of moderators they employ to enforce their terms of service and corporate values. (I should note that even Breitbart enforces the same kinds of standards in its comments section.) But as my colleague Steve Simpson has argued, imposing a code of conduct on posters hardly seems grounds for counting Google as a publisher liable for all the content it hosts. To make it liable would incentivize them to vet that content even more.

The Google presentation does contain a fatal flaw that sets the company up to be smeared. Its easily quotable title is “The Good Censor,” and it counts the forms of curation and moderation mentioned above as genuine censorship. But these are not censorship. As I have argued elsewhere, there is a crucial difference between a private media company’s decision about which messages it wants to promote, and the decision of a government to forcibly prohibit messages with certain kinds of content. Only the latter is genuine censorship.

Google’s error here is to count its own moderation efforts as censorship, uncritically accepting a popular confusion. But Breitbart’s error is to openly flout the standards of objective journalism. Curiously, Breitbart followed up its report by lamenting the dearth of media attention its story received outside of “right wing” outlets. It’s true that there is a great deal of left-leaning bias in both the media and the tech industry, as testimony from recent political dissenters within Silicon Valley should help us see. If tech companies’ goal is to enable a real exchange of ideas, they need to work to correct this bias. But there are other reasons apart from bias that may explain the lack of attention given to the Breitbart story. Upstart conservative media might fail to attract the attention of the better journalists because they are simply not as reliable as they should be. If the Breitbart report is any indication of the existing quality of its reporting, it has a long way to go before earning the attention and respect of more objective reporters.

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Ben Bayer

Ben Bayer, Ph.D. in philosophy and formerly a professor, is a fellow at the Ayn Rand Institute.

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