The Pathfinders Column from the April 2017 issue of the Socialist Standard
Google have been in trouble again lately, this time for 'allowing' ads by governments and major companies to appear next to extremist and hate videos on YouTube, making it look as if the videos are being sponsored by the likes of HMG, M&S, the Guardian and others.
The problem, as Google readily admit, is that they don't know how to prevent this happening. So-called smart filtering software does exist, but it's unrealistic to expect it always to tell the difference between appropriate and inappropriate content, given that human opinions are often divided on the subject. Current estimates vary, but in 2014 YouTube stated that 300 hours of new material were being uploaded every minute to their site, so policing that volume of content is next to impossible. Nevertheless critics are wont to demand the moon on a stick and attack Google for not doing enough to keep their house in order.
At the same time, Google has also been criticised for censorship, usually when their automated efforts to police content go wrong. An Egyptian blogger's videos of vote-rigging and police brutality were removed in 2007. A video criticising sharia law in Britain and backed by the National Secular Society was taken down in 2008. There are hundreds of other complaints about Google being either dictatorial or drippily laissez-faire, depending on the individual point of view. And YouTube was itself blocked in Pakistan for carrying videos criticising Islam, in Turkey for videos insulting national founder Kemal Atatürk, in Thailand for unflattering remarks against the royals, in the UK and Germany for music copyright infringement, in China, Iran and Turkmenistan in virtual perpetuity, and so on.
It's not just the videos that YouTube has been castigated for. Its policy of allowing comments has repeatedly been under fire for unleashing a barrage of inane bigotry. Time Magazine complained in 2006: "Some of the comments on YouTube make you weep for the future of humanity just for the spelling alone, never mind the obscenity and the naked hatred", and the Guardian in 2015 called it "a hotbed of infantile debate and unashamed ignorance" (Wikipedia). Google in 2013 decided to force viewers to create a Google+ account before they could post comments on videos, but this in turn attracted a storm of protest, even from one of YouTube's own co-founders.
This is all quite apart from controversies about aggressive tax avoidance, supposed manipulation over search results, source-code secrecy, abuse or appropriation of intellectual property, invasion of privacy and monopolistic practices. Having failed to live up to its founding motto 'Don't Be Evil' (what corporation wouldn't fail, though?), Google adopted a new motto in 2015: 'Do the right thing'. What this means is anybody's guess, but it's likely that Google won't live up to this motto either.
Google is valued at $133bn and its parent company Alphabet is listed by Forbes as the 27th largest company in the world, above IBM, General Motors, Gazprom, Intel, Boeing, Disney and Coca-Cola. Just as Uber, wriggling and writhing through its current worker-exploitation controversies by insisting it is a technology 'platform' not a taxi company, so Google aims to avoid government regulation by maintaining that it is a technology platform and not a media company (Google's crisis of confidence, BBC Online, 20 March). Whether it's allowed to get away with this in the future remains to be seen.
There is a degree of 'shoot the messenger' involved in all this. The internet has opened a hitherto unsuspected Pandora's Box of horrors including trolling, fraud, cyberbullying, revenge porn and general 'net rage' which reveals the crawling underbelly of capitalism in its harshest light. Young people, caught up in this ferocious storm of cruelty, have been driven to suicide. Pious pundits may wonder where all this rage and cruelty comes from, but socialists are not under any illusions. Happy people are not cruel. Anger runs through capitalism like 'Brighton' runs through a stick of rock. What people are angry about is the conditions they live under in capitalism, and the oppressive power relations that grind them down. Of course it's in the nature of power relations that you can't take your oppressor out into the street and punch his face in. So people vent their anonymous spite on each other instead, and then everybody blames Google for 'allowing' it all to happen. Maybe when they said 'Don't be evil' they didn't mean themselves.
What would Google and YouTube look like in socialism? Not that different, in some ways. But passwords and paywalls would be obsolete, to general relief, as would pop-up ads, banners and flashes, not to mention adware and spyware and porn links. Search results would tend to reflect genuinely popular sites, as they mostly now do, but without web developers having a money incentive to 'game' the rankings systems to promote bogus sites. But perhaps the most noticeable difference would be the disappearance of the obsessive cult of online secrecy, including the 'dark web', and the consequent freedom presently enjoyed by some in capitalism - the freedom to abuse, bully, libel, humiliate and torture someone, sometimes to death, while cosily wrapped in layers of anonymity, safe from discovery. That's not a freedom anyone will want in socialism.
How accurate is Wikipedia? A recent study of Wikipedia produced a very interesting result. It turned out that Wikipedia's own army of 'bots' - autonomous editing and web maintenance programs - have been engaged in a relentless war with each other for at least a decade, changing and rechanging each other's edits, backwards and forwards, without let or quarter (Link.). As a study author put it, 'humans would have given up by now, but bots just go on forever'. Oddly, there is no entry in Wikipedia itself about its own bot wars, which might be an oversight or else a craven example of truth being the first casualty of war. At any rate, nobody's quite sure how this happened, or what to do about it. Says one researcher: "It is crucial to understand what could affect bot-bot interactions in order to design cooperative bots that can manage disagreement, avoid unproductive conflict, and fulfill their tasks in ways that are socially and ethically acceptable."
Quite so, and perhaps when they've managed that, they can start explaining it to humans.