Pornography, Google’s Monopoly, and the Need for Civic Digital Literacy

On Monday, May 30th, Google stopped running ads for pornography, a move reported by several news organizations including the Guardian, CNET, and Slate.  According to the article in Slate, the move was partly the result of Google bowing to pressure from family values groups.  The Slate article references comments made on the Morality in Media website stating that they had a “productive meeting” with Google in May. Morality in Media publishes an annual Dirty Dozen list of businesses that facilitate the “the spread of pornography and exploitation”.  Google has consistently made the list.

Because Google is by far the dominant search engine, commanding a whopping 68% of the market according to Search Engine Watch, they will always be the target of interest groups that are not happy with this or that website.  People know that as Google goes, the web goes.  If Google does not acknowledge you, you do not exist.  This is a problem.

University of Virginia professor Siva Vaidhyanathan’s much discussed book  The Googlization of Everything (And Why We Should Worry) explores this very issue.  In the beginning pages, Vaidhyanathan points to the problem clearly when he writes:

“We may see Google as a savior, but it rules like Caesar. The mythology of the Web leads us to assume that it is a wild, ungovernable, and thus ungoverned realm. This could not be further from the truth. There was a power vacuum in the Web not so long ago, but we have invited Google to fill it. Overwhelmingly, we now allow Google to determine what is important, relevant, and true on the Web and in the world. We trust and believe that Google acts in our best interest. But we have surrendered control over the values, methods, and processes that make sense of our information ecosystem.”

Vaidhyanathan’s book explains much better than I can why Google’s dominance is troubling.  But in short, Google is a profit seeking company that must conform to business logic.  Decisions about whether or not to show pornographic ads are not based on morality (reason for removing the ads) or constitutional principles of free speech (maybe a reason for not removing them), but instead a cold, hard, capitalistic logic.  Calculations are made based on what will cost the most – losing ads from pornographers or getting a public black eye from morality groups.  After the calculation, then the decision.

There is nothing wrong this.  Google is a business.  They made their name and fortune by connecting us to places in the digital environment.

The trouble is not Google’s policy, but our reaction to it.



“I’m Just a Bill”

Everyone over the age of, say, 30 knows School House Rock, and the song with these words:

“I’m just a bill

Yes I’m only a bill

And I’m sittin’ here on Capitol Hill”

School House Rock

If you’ve never seen it, it is on Youtube (of course!).  The cartoon was in effect a short civics lesson, teaching kids how a bill becomes a law.  It was not about preparation for a career in politics, but instead about preparing people to become effective citizens in a representative democracy.  Throughout our history, we have judged this type of knowledge important.   Civics (or social studies) classes in high school taught aspects of government, law, and major social issues such as multiculturalism and abortion.  The logic being that civic knowledge was needed in order to understand the implications of certain issues and to take knowledgeable action – in others words to be empowered citizens.

However, it appears as if, in the age of No Child Left Behind and much hand wringing over America’s educational decline relative to other countries, the country is neglecting civics.  As of 2012 only nine states require students to pass a social studies test for graduation.  Civics is suffering the fate of many non technical strands of knowledge, including history, art and physical education.


The Need for Civic Digital Literacy

The neglecting of civics and social studies in K – 12 education, putting our young people at a disadvantage vis-a-vis our government.  They won’t have the conceptual tools and practical knowledge required to speak truth to power.  Instead, when vaguely aware of being transgressed in some way, they may just flail about wildly and babble incoherently.  More likely, in the face of cultural changes they do not like, demographic shifts they cannot understand, and economic upheavals that leave them adrift, they watch passively.  Even more likely, they simply won’t know that something is amiss because they won’t know the way things are supposed to function.

There is a type of civic literacy that can be applied to the digital environment as well.  Let’s call it civic digital literacy.  It entails understanding how to be effective users of the digital environment.  Like civic literacy in the physical environment, there is no direct tie to jobs.  It is not about learning how to use a computer (preparation for being a computer technician) and its not about learning how to code (preparation for being a software programmer).  Instead, it is about understanding:

  • The laws that govern the digital environment – Knowing this carves out our rights as citizens vis-a-vis Internet service providers and on-line companies,  including Google.  This also can provide an understanding of the major issues that frame debates about the digital environment.
  • A general history of the Internet – We need a context and lens through which to understand the trajectory of the digital environment.  This will allow us to  understand what was, what is presently, and what is possible in the future
  • A basic understanding of Internet architecture – Not too technical of course.  But just a breakdown of how all the parts work together, similar to the way we have learned how the three branches of government (supposedly) keep each other in check.  Even a basic understanding will give citizens conceptual tools in which to understand changes proposed by interest groups, lobbies, and politicians.

Being an Empowered Citizen in the Digital Environment

Now what does this have to do with Google, their monopoly on web search, and their decision to ban porn from their ad network?

Well, my understanding of the digital environment, mainly the history of the web,  is such that I do not want one company having so much control over web search that their decisions can practically erase entities from the web – even if it is pornography.  People can still search for pornography by using the search box or typing in the web address.  The websites are still there.  But people buy ads for a reason, and this decision will certainly limit the exposure of these businesses.  Google’s decision runs counter, based upon my understanding, of what web search is supposed to be.

I am also concerned because I see the Internet as more than simply a place to buy things or watch cat videos.  Based upon my basic understanding of Internet architecture I see the possibilities.  I see it as a place where the social barriers present in the physical environment are not there, and people of different backgrounds can connect and people who are always on the outside looking in and can finally get in.  I want to protect this as much as possible.

That does not mean, however, that I want Google to change its policy.  Not really.  But it means that I have a conceptual background that allows me to critique that policy, and be on guard should decisions like these accumulate to the point where I believe the health of the digital environment is compromised.  I am, in other words, an informed and empowered citizen in the digital environment.

And this is why we need civic digital literacy.



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