I recently got into a fight on the Internet. (Yes, I know, you’re scandalized.) I was on a tech podcast discussing Google’s decision to remove links to revenge porn from its search results when victims request it. Having found it nearly impossible, legally, to get the actual revenge porn sites taken down, these victims had sought redress via the search engines that could lead a potential employer or friend to the damaging material. If you can’t make it disappear, you can at least make it more difficult to find.
I supported Google’s decision to make life harder for the world’s creeps, but my host considered it a slippery slope. “If you’re going to say, ‘I’m going to make a search engine,’ ” he said, “you should make one that indexes what’s on the Net, regardless of content.” He was concerned that “editorial intervention always introduces bias,” choosing instead to put his faith in an algorithm that “can be completely objective.”
My adversary was espousing what sociologist Tricia Wang, currently in residence at Ideo in Shanghai, calls information universalism. It means that we should not stomach any limitations on speech, because of what the First Amendment guarantees. Not only is this a misreading of the U.S. Constitution, but as our lives increasingly interact with the Internet, this attitude, while noble in theory, is more dangerous than ever.
Consider Reddit’s near collapse last summer. Over the years, a belief set in that Reddit should support a community for any topic no matter how insidious, objectionable, dangerous, or stupid, because “information wants to be free,” and any management whatsoever would be censorship and shove us over the edge of that slippery slope toward child-murdering Thought Police. True lovers of freedom—a tiny but loud cohort with too much time on their hands—should celebrate the dedication of private Internet resources to the shaming of fat people. To their minds, the inventive engineers at DARPA who created the Internet intended for the CoonTown subreddit to exist within this global network of networks.
“Techies confuse the open protocols of the Internet with a sense that information itself should remain open and unmanaged,” Wang tells me. Indeed, the First Amendment has nothing to say about what Google Inc. and Reddit Inc. can and cannot do to create a service they consider useful. It is only concerned with actions of the government, specifically laws, to restrict speech. Information universalists are applying their feelings to the business decisions of companies and then expressing outrage when we are not, in fact, allowed to say whatever the hell we want—or at least not wherever the hell we want.
Google’s job is not to reflect exactly what is on the Net; its job is to help us find relevant information (and deliver us unto advertisers). Technically speaking, Google captures between .04% and 4% of the Internet’s content. Google is amazing and yet Google does nothing!
Similarly, Reddit was not founded to uphold the inalienable rights of terrible people to spread their terrors. Rather, it exists to spread memes and images and provide a forum of whatever kind its owners feel like providing.
The belief that human bias is only shown through banning forums or deleting search results—and not in the human-designed algorithm or site interface—is naive. There is no such pure state. Our prejudices are everywhere, our filtering systems unavoidable. Information management is a feature, not a bug, and those who argue otherwise are far more than information universalists. They are information extremists.