TCS Daily

Whacking Google

By Radley Balko - April 4, 2002 12:00 AM

Several decades ago, mathematician Edward Kasner conceived a number so large, it would exceed the total number of elementary particles in the known universe, with room to spare. He asked his nine-year-old nephew to name this new number, a one followed by one hundred zeros. The young Milton Sirotta called it "googol."

About five years ago, software engineers Larry Page and Sergey Brin settled on "Google" as the name of their innovative new search engine. It was a nod to Kasner, and to their own ongoing effort to bring order to the billions of bits of information that comprise the Internet.

Today Google is perhaps the Net's best success story. It just attained profitability, thanks to the addition of inconspicuous but highly effective and targeted text ads. Google combs 2 billion web pages to satisfy 150 million daily search requests. It has become the de facto librarian, encyclopedia and custodian of the Internet.

Google has even wriggled into Internet pop culture. "Googlewhacking" is the latest geeky Internet parlor game. Washington Post Magazine columnist Liza Mundy wrote some weeks back about the "Googling" phenomenon in the singles scene. Women (and men, I can report) are running searches for valuable background on prospective paramours.

The secret behind Google's success lies in its algorithm. Unlike other search engines, Google ranks search results by significance. Sites frequently linked to by other sites are listed first, because they're likely more useful.

But this one-two punch of meaningful search results and targeted text ads now has Google in some hot water with its once devoted following.

The Church of Scientology has been fighting its Internet detractors pretty much since the onset of the Internet (It's been fighting its off-Internet detractors since the onset of Scientology).

One site, Operation Clambake, has emerged as a clearinghouse for wacky Scientology texts, firsthand accounts of defectors, and general debunkery of L. Ron Hubbard's "body of wisdom." Based in Norway, Clambake is free from U.S. jurisdiction, meaning Scientology's cutthroat legal eagles can't censor editor Andreas Heldal-Lund with lawsuits.

The church responded by installing filters on its computers (and those of its members) that block out anti-Scientology websites. They've also gone after other Internet detractors legally, attempting to censor them with copyright law, hate crimes laws, and most recently with the Digital Millennium Copyright Act.

Scientology also quickly caught on to Google. For a long time, Scientology has set up faux front groups to bring fresh blood into the fold. The church discovered that by giving each of these groups a website, and by having each of them link to one another, they could monopolize the Google search results pages, pushing adversary pages far down the list of results.

This has a twofold effect. First, it ensures a favorable first impression, as only official church sites are listed on the first few results pages. Second, it undermines the credibility of the anti-Scientology sites, as Google's law dictates sites are deemed less relevant as you wade deeper into search results. Thus, Scientologists succeed in both silencing and discrediting their critics with one well-conceived strategy.

Enter the bloggers. Very generally, blogs are link-heavy, frequently updated online journals. Seeking to give voice to the anti-Scientologist perspective, the blogger community began a wholesale linking campaign to Operation Clambake. The campaign was a success, boosting Clambake to #4 on the Google results page for the term "Scientology."

Predictably, Scientology went legal, asserting that Clambake violated the DMCA by using Scientology trademarks on its site. But Clambake is immune to U.S. jurisdiction, so Scientology did the next best thing. They went after Google.

Legally, the argument was bogus. The DMCA makes no claims over trademarks, only over copyright (and it's questionable whether or not merely linking to copyrighted material is really a violation). Clambake uses Scientology trademarks, but doesn't violate its copyrighted material. And merely linking to sites using trademarks is unquestionably protected.

But Google relented. Despite case history to the contrary, Google removed all Operation Clambake webpages from its directory.

A fury ensued. Bloggers all over the Net - most loyal Googlers - decried Google's kowtow to Scientology's censors. And rightly so. In succumbing to Scientology bullying, Google threw the integrity of its much-respected search results into doubt.

Google has since come around a bit. They've reinstated Clambake's front page in the Google directory. But only the front page. The rest of the site - all of the testimonials and extensive anti-Scientology research and documentation - remains hidden.

Google then caved again, this time by prohibiting anti-Scientology ads from appearing on "Scientology" searches. Their reasoning? In an e-mail to one would-be ad buyer, Google wrote that the ban was due to "our policy of no ads that advertise sites that advocate against any individual, group, or organization."

This is absurd. And inaccurate. First, the notion of banning "anti" ads is preposterous. The purpose of an ad is to advocate something (a product, a book, an idea, a candidate) over its competition. Any advertisement is, by definition, "anti" something.

Second, as Microcontent News points out, Google's stated policy isn't consistently applied (it couldn't be, or Google could never sell an ad). Ads for antiabortion services appear, for example, when "abortion" is entered as a search term.

Though they've yet to officially change their position, Google may be coming around on this one too. A recent search for "Scientology" yielded an ad for "The Autobiography of Margery Wakefield," a Scientology defector, and skeptical coverage of Scientology by the salty website It remains to be seen if these ads simply slipped through the system, or are the result of revised Google ad policy.

To be fair, Google is still a fledgling Internet company. Its goal is to stay afloat - and avoiding costly litigation is probably an important component to any "staying afloat" business strategy.

What's troubling is how quickly Google capitulated to Scientology. The DMCA is a nasty little piece of legislation - it was designed to inhibit the flow of information. But there's nary a copyright lawyer who hasn't been e-metered (a Scientology ritual) who thinks the DMCA applies to Internet search engines. A perfunctory scan of legal advice should have made that apparent.

Google's soaring popularity comes with some responsibility. The Internet's quasi-official librarian can't go reaching for the matchbook and gasoline every time an angry parent comes to the PTA meeting waving a copy of "Catcher In the Rye."

Almost as soon as Edward Kasner had introduced "googol" to the world, another mathematician shot back with "googolplex" -- defined as ten to the power of googol -- a number so large, one physicist recently suggested it may be 500 years before we have a computer that could begin to contemplate it. Suddenly, "googol" wasn't so big anymore.

Google the search engine ought not gamble its users' loyalty by caving to guerilla legal threats. Because somewhere, someone's undoubtedly developing Google's own "Googleplex," a faster, more comprehensive, more principled search engine. In compromising the integrity of its search results to satisfy some disgruntled special interests, Google's only hastening the arrival of its replacement.

TCS Daily Archives