The ALA, Google, and the Passion for Censorship
By Servando Gonzalez
Copyright © 2006 by Servando Gonzalez. All rights reserved.
In his keynote speech
at the American Library Association midwinter meeting in San
Antonio, Texas, Romanian-born writer Andrei Codrescu surprised
his sponsors by strongly criticizing ALA executives for denying
support to their harassed colleagues at Cuba's independent libraries.
Codrescu did not mince his words when he asserted that, "it
was with a great deal of dismay that I learned that the American
Library Association has taken no action to condemn the imprisonment
of librarians, the banning of books, the repression of expression,
and the torture of dissidents only 90 miles away from our shores,
After explaining briefly the story of the repression of Cuba's
independent librarians, and the ALA's excuse for not backing
them -- according to ALA's executives, they are not librarians
at all --, Codrescu discussed the very definition of "librarian".
He started the discussion with a question: "How is a librarian
better than a mouse click?"
According to Codrescu, the role of the librarian is nothing
more than a facilitator of books to the readers, and he mentioned
Google as an outstanding example of the ideal librarian, providing
the reader access to all types of unfiltered, uncensored information.
But he pointed out that the comparison was unfair, because "the
machine never gets tired and doesn't waste time caring about
the quality of the information". Codrescu believes that
someone who gives out books is a librarian.
Surprisingly, most of the allegedly freedom-of-speech-loving
ALA members were outraged. Codrescu's words touched a raw nerve.
Most ALA members believe that Cuba's independent librarians are
just "book lenders", while they see themselves a step
above, as people who care about the quality of the information
they provide to the readers. That explains why ALA executives
have been systematically siding with the Cuban government in
claiming that Cuba's independent librarians are not librarians
at all. It seems that, according to the ALA's convoluted logic,
only librarians approved by the ALA and the Cuban government
deserve that title.
In the days following the convention, several ALA members
wrote articles criticizing Codrescu's ideas. In her article "Librarians
struggle to define their roles" (The Berkeley Voice,
march 3, 2006), Julie Wilkenstein, a San Francisco Bay Area librarian
and ALA member, continued the debate and, after stating that
Codrescu was wrong, advanced her ALA-sponsored view of librarians
as people who worry "about the quality of their information",
as well as "protectors" and "selectors" of
Apparently she failed to notice that all the words she used
in her description of ALA-approved librarians are nothing but
euphemisms for censors. No wonder American librarians at the
ALA have a soft spot in the bottom of their hearts for Fidel
Castro, Cuba's main and for-life censor. But, more important,
who gave the arrogant censors at ALA the right, the authority,
or the power to determine who in Cuba is or is not a librarian?
Also, if the Cuban independent librarians decide not to follow
the ALA's rules, are they going to ask President Bush to send
in the Marines to invade the island to enforce their rules?
The Castro lovers at the ALA may see themselves as liberals
and progressives. They seem very reactionaries and regressives
Though Codrescu was right in his criticism of ALA's hypocritical
policies (ALA Policy 58.3 states that "Threats to the freedom
of expression of any person become threats to the freedom of
all ..."), he was wrong on one count: mentioning Google
as an example of the ideal non-biased librarian. Perhaps Codrescu
was not aware of Google's secret activities of lately. Had he
been so, he may have discovered that Google is not an innocent
bystander in the battle for the free flow of ideas. Actually
it seems that the folks at Google are trying harder to get the
censorship banner from the hands of the ALA and become themselves
the new self-appointed leaders of the people-who-worry-about-the-quality-of-the-information,
In January 24 of this year, AP reported that "Online
search engine leader Google has agreed to censor its results
in China, adhering to the country's free-speech restrictions
in return for better access in the internet's fastest growing
market." According to the news, Google will launch a version
of its search and news sites in China that will include some
dark features. Google's site will censor its search and news
materials according to China's totalitarian government standards.
The repulsive fact shows that the liberal and progressive
folks at Google have no ethical problem whatsoever in applying
censorship for profit. On the other hand, perhaps the news is
only the bit of evidence that confirms beyond any reasonable
doubt some people's suspicions about what the progressive Google
folks (the company's motto is "Don't be Evil") have
been doing all the time for fun. Contrary to what most people
believe, Google is not a blind, unbiased searching tool for gathering
information without any ideological criteria. For example, according
to the JunkYard Blogger, a search on "images.google"
does show a bias against Christian related images.
Google's decision to apply censorship to its site in China
infuriated many Google users in the U.S. Some of them are so
upset that they have been calling for a boycott on Google. If
one is to believe Umbria Inc., a market research company in Boulder,
Colo., that tracks blog postings about businesses, a huge peak
in negative online comments related to Google and censorship
was detected in the web immediately after the China deal was
known. A good information about Google's censorship activities
can be found at http://www.google-watch.org/, a site devoted
to keep a vigilant eye on "Google's monopoly, algorithms,
and privacy policies".
There are other reasons, however, to be concerned about Google's
goals. In mid-2005 Google closed deals with several university
libraries, among them Stanford, Harvard, and U. Michigan, to
digitize some or all of their collections. The contracts have
some nondisclosure constraints. In every single page of them
is prominently printed the word "Confidential", and
there is a whole section about confidentiality.
The ALA raised justified hell when it was mentioned that under
some parts of the new antiterrorism laws librarians may be forced
to provide information to the FBI, the Office of Homeland (in)Security,
or other government agencies about the persons accessing certain
books. But people concerned about the readers' privacy, found
in Google's site that the company reserves the right to do anything
it wants with the information they (illegally or just unethically)
collect from the readers. Obviously, this goes against the policies
allegedly supported by the ALA.
It is safe to surmise that, once most books -- particularly
the out of print and difficult to find ones -- have been digitized,
most libraries, under the pressure of lack of space and low personnel
budgets, will end up by getting rid of most printed books of
which digitized versions are available. As I mentioned before,
Google's goal is to eventually digitize all books. Given
Google's passion for censorship, and ALA's irregular application
of its policies (ALA is only against censors they don't like),
book censorship may become a common thing.
In his novel 1984, Orwell envisioned a totalitarian
future in which the censors working at the Ministry of Truth
altered, using old fashion cut and paste techniques, newspapers,
magazines and books, to create fake pages with the "politically
correct" content. Then the old, problematic pages were thrown
through a "memory hole" to the incinerators. But, If
Google's plans materialize, the censors' job would be a lot easier.
Not only they will track everyone accessing a book, the same
way they are doing now with everyone who searches for a particular
subject using their search engine, leaving a recorded track for
the censors to take reprisals, but censorship by alteration or
elimination of content will be just a click away.
It is sad to discover that the attacks on freedom of expression
in this country come not only from the usual suspects, but from
some freedom-haters masquerading as freedom-lovers as well. Unfortunately,
as bad as it is, this is not the end of the story. It seems that
now the "progressive" folks at Google are currently
working on going all the way in pursuing their goal of becoming
the Internet's main censor.
According to a press report appeared on April 20 on an Israeli
trade magazine, Google announced it has acquired a new, advanced
text search algorithm invented by an Israeli studying at Sydney's
University of New South Wales. The algorithm, called Orion, offers
a list of topics directly related to the original search and
only reveals the sites with enough words reasonably linked to
one another and relevant to the search, according to a report
in the Israeli business magazine The Marker.
There is a problem, however, and it is that the total content
on one particular page usually does not have enough data, in
and of itself, to reflect the concepts dealt with a particular
article, academic paper, or book, and thus it will not be easy
to realize the true relevance of that page, particularly when
the browser is a dumb computer algorithm based on an arcane,
artificial system of ranking, and not a specialist in the subject.
That gives some relevance to a joke an anonymous anti-Google
prankster posted online:
WARNING: The Surgeon General has determined that Google's
ranking practices are dangerous to the development of creative
and critical thinking.
Nevertheless, there is an even more ominous Orwellian side
revealed. According to the report, "Orion also rates the
texts by quality of the site in which they appear". Now,
as everybody knows, quality is a very elusive, even subjective,
characteristic of products. Long time ago, I heard a market specialistdefining
it as "a characteristic of a product when it has been made
with love." Then, how is Google's Orion going to determine
the quality of the site on which a particular text appears. For
the time being, in totalitarian countries like China, Korea,
or Cuba, to Google a high quality site will be one in which no
criticism to the government appears.
At the time of its apparition Google was an extraordinary
tool in the hands of the people. Contrary to a great percentage
of the population, who craves for the information Pablum offered
by the mass media, internet users look for unfiltered, uncensored
information. They prefer to be their own filters of information
rather than allowing self-elected censors do this job for them.
That explains Google's initial instant success.
But Google's owners became greedy, and discovered that, just
by slightly tweaking the search algorithms, they could make appear
some sites addresses in the first page of a search . . . and
charge for it. This, of course, had a negative impact on the
impartiality of a search. A site owner I know complained that
some years ago his site always appeared on the first page of
a Google site, but not any more. Google users may have noticed
that lately most of Google searches only bring out a lot of commercial
But, if annoying, this is not the true problem to be concerned
about. If the liberal, progressive folks at Google can tweak
the search algorithm -- and now we know for sure that they can
and have been doing it --, and -- as the China deal indicates
-- they are ethically and morally challenged, what kind of self-restrain
can prohibit them to secretly change their motto to a new one:
I guess that, considering themselves liberal progressives,
most ALA members and Google employees are strongly anti-Bush.
But, given the totalitarian bend and the passion for censorship
of the Bush administration, I am sure Bush and his neo-con friends
see both the ALA and Google as some of their potential strongest
supporters in the implementation of their totalitarian wet dreams.
Farfetched? Perhaps not too much.
In his speech "Heil Moskau!" of 21 November 1927,
(Der Angriff. Aufsätze aus der Kampfzeit, Munich:
Zentralverlag der NSDAP., 1935), pp. 236-238), Joseph Goebbels
urged Germans to leave the Communist Party and join the Nazis.
The Nazi Propaganda Minister and psy-op guru knew very well that
is was not difficult to turn a Communist into a Fascist. As he
predicted, many Communists left their party and joined the Nazis.
(Both China and Cuba strictly enforce a policy of total censorship
over the Internet, and limit the access to it only to government-authorized