February 24, 2015

With Sudden Blogger Change, Google Drags Their Trust Problem Back into the Spotlight

Blog Update (February 27, 2015): Google's Gutsy Reversal: Explicit Content Blogger Ban Rescinded

I'm not a big fan of porn. I'd be lying if I claimed to never glance at it -- hell, I'm a human male, no excuses about that -- but explicit materials tend not to be anywhere near the top of my personal Web browsing catalog.

It's undeniable though that due to its highly controversial and widely variable definition, restrictions on "explicit" imagery in particular have long been at the forefront of freedom of speech issues and concerns, even among individual free speech advocates who may personally detest such content.

The reason is pretty obvious -- how governments and corporations handle these "edge" materials (that may often be viewed as "low hanging fruit") can be harbingers of how they will deal with other sensitive and controversial matters that fall into free speech realms, including access to historical information already published (the target of the EU's nightmarish "Right To Be Forgotten"), political information and criticisms, and ... well, it's a long list.

Abrupt changes in such policies -- particularly when announced without explanations -- tend to be particularly eyebrow-raising and of special concern.

So it is with considerable puzzlement and consternation that I yesterday saw Google's quite surprising announcement that they were banning most explicit imagery from their very popular and long-standing Blogger platform, and indeed with only 30 days notice and without any explanation whatsoever for this dramatic reversal in policy.

There are some limited and rather nebulous exceptions ("educational value" and the like -- sure to be the subject of heated disagreement), and users can download their existing sites to try move elsewhere, but the overall sense of the change is clear enough. Google is trying to kick such sites -- many of them essentially personal, alternative lifestyle, non-commercial public "diaries" of long-standing and with vast numbers of incoming links built up over many years -- out the Google door as rapidly as possible.

And let there be no mistake about it -- this is a sudden, dramatic, and virtually 180 degree change. Blogger has long explicitly celebrated freedom of expression, with "adult content" sites including an access warning splash page so nobody would be exposed to such materials accidentally.

That Google is within its rights to change this policy in the manner they have announced is totally true and utterly unassailable.

But the manner of their doing this drags back into focus longstanding concerns about how Google treats its users in particular contexts, particularly those users who might be considered to fall outside of "mainstream" society in any number of ways.

Google has indeed made some very significant positive strides in this area. Account recovery systems have been improved so that innocent (but sometimes forgetful) users are less likely to be locked out of their accounts and associated Google services. Google Takeout permits users to download their data from a wide variety of Google services to save locally or store elsewhere -- if they do this before the associated Google account is closed. (However, the "who's data is this anyway?" question still looms large in cases of forcible account closures due to various kinds of Terms of Service violations, when users may not be able to further access their data, even to download it -- this is a very complex topic.)

Though this seems not to be widely realized, Google+ no longer enforces "real name" requirements on users (only some completely rational Terms of Service restrictions to avoid serious abuses), and is now profile-friendly to users' own sexual orientations in a manner that really should be emulated by firms across the Web.

But the old trust fears, some of them trumped up propaganda from Google adversaries, others having at least some basis in fact -- about Google making sudden, seemingly inexplicable changes in terms and policies, altering or even rapidly deprecating services on which significant non-majority user communities depend -- are being reenergized seemingly as a sort of unforced error on Google's part.

And such errors can do real damage, both to users and Google. For most of the public does not view Google as a set of disparate and compartmentalized services, but rather as more of a unified whole, and perceived negative experiences with one aspect of the firm can easily drag down views of the firm overall, much to the delight of hardcore Google haters, by the way. This is why even if you don't care one iota about porn or other materials considered to be explicit, you should still be concerned about this Google policy change.

I care about Google's users and Google itself -- a firm that has accomplished amazing feats toward the betterment of the Internet and larger world over the course of a handful of years. I don't want to see those Google haters handed a gift package that can't help but assist their cause and attacks.

We could get into a lengthy discussion comparing the Blogger policies of long standing with those of YouTube, Google Ads, and the like, but while interesting, such analysis here and now would not be particularly relevant to the immediate situation at hand.

The bottom line is that a dramatic change of policy that negatively affects users who have been following the rules to date, is deserving of significant warning notice (not merely a month -- many of these sites have been operating for many years, some perhaps even since before Google's acquisition of Blogger in 2003). I would have recommended (absent some difficult to postulate legal urgency forcing a faster timeline) at least 90 days as an absolute minimum, ideally far longer.

That would be putting your users first, especially when deploying a policy change that will disrupt them greatly. And please, no excuses that "only a small percentage" of users would be affected. At Google scale even tiny percentages can represent a whole bunch of live human beings, and how you treat users who are easily marginalized can be representative of broader attitudes in very significant ways.

And notably, I would have offered a simultaneous clear and honest public explanation of why this total about-face on such a matter of direct free expression concerns had been deemed necessary or otherwise desirable. That's just common courtesy.

The world won't come to an end with this Blogger policy change by Google. There will still be virtually limitless sources for porn and other explicit imagery elsewhere, and most affected personal bloggers will find other platforms and over time perhaps rebuild their communities.

But the real story here isn't about sex or images or blogging at all. It's about how to treat people with respect, even when a particular group represents a small minority of total users, and even when they express controversial views via explicit materials. It could be argued that it's in these more contentious areas that treating users right is especially important.

Given the information I have at hand right now regarding this abrupt Blogger policy change and the circumstances surrounding it, I am very disappointed in the way Google has handled the overall situation.

I say this because I feel that Google is a great company -- and I not only believe that Google can do better with such matters -- I know that they can.


Blog Update (February 27, 2015): Google's Gutsy Reversal: Explicit Content Blogger Ban Rescinded

Posted by Lauren at February 24, 2015 09:44 AM | Permalink
Twitter: @laurenweinstein
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