A user on Slashdot noticed yesterday that the lead result in the Google search results for the term “Armenia genocide” leads not to an impartial source but to a site which whitewashes the 1914 massacre.
If you use Google Turkey to search for “Ermeni Krm”, which means “Armenian genocide” in Turkish, the first thing you’ll see is a sponsored link to a website whose purpose is to deny there was any genocide at all. If you Google “Armenia genocide” in the U.S., you’ll see the same thing. FactCheckArmenia.com may reflect Turkey’s longstanding position that the Ottoman Empire’s systematic effort to “relocate” and exterminate its Armenian population does not qualify as a genocide, but it certainly does not reflect the facts.
Google commonly marks the adverts with a tag so they are easy to identify and avoid. One could argue that the obviousness renders them innocuous, but I disagree.
That particular site was created to argue one position on an issue (whether the Ottoman Turks committed genocide against Armenians in 1915). They would not continue to pay for the search term if they weren’t getting clicks and having an impact. And that tells us that this advert is far from innocuous.
This story sparked a heated debate on Slashdot, with some commenters taking the neutral position behind the shield of freedom of speech. That is a principle I support with all my heart, but it doesn’t apply here.
Free speech means that you get to say what you want. That’s fine and dandy, but in this case we have Google taking someone’s money so they can speak first. I know that the US Supreme Court disagrees with me, but money isn’t speech.
Selling the right to speak first isn’t free speech; it’s commerce. It is a privilege reserved to those with the deepest pockets.
Google has a long and troubled history of selling the first search results as adverts. While this is perhaps the most questionable example, it’s arguably not the most harmful. That title would go to the advertisers which bid on ad spots above software download search results. Some of those advertisers offered their own installer that bundled the app you want with adware, malware, and crapware (PUPs or potentially unwanted programs, in Google lingo).
Google eventually realized those ads were harming users, and changed its advertiser policy to forbid the bundled installers.
And that is why I don’t accept the free speech argument here.
By setting these policies Google is almost as much a publisher as a platform for adverts. They could take a similar approach to this and other contentious topics. Google claims to be able to judge the authority and accuracy of a site (they even have a patent on judging truth). Maybe they should apply their search engine algorithms as a filter on their advertisers.
There are downsides to that proposal, but I think the current situation is less palatable.