Wednesday, April 02, 2008

The Ethics of the Google Bomb

There seems to be something of a dispute on the ethics of the 'Google bomb'. In this case, the term refers to the act of creating blog posting that are intended to influence the search results that one gets from conducting a search through an internet search engine such as (and in particular) Google. In this case, the goal is to promote the web site "Expelled Exposed" for those who search for Ben Stein's movie "Expelled".

I wish to start with a disclaimer, that I have some vested interest in this topic. Somehow, my critique of the movie 'Expelled', Ben Stein's 'Expelled' is the second or third hit on Google when people search for “Ben Stein Expelled” or any similar search term. I am getting 1/3 of my visitors each day from those searches. So, for me, one of the corollaries to this issue is whether I have reason to feel that I have been wronged in some way by this attempt to promote the web site 'Expelled Exposed’ to the top of the Google search results - given the fact that I will lose traffic as a result.

I believe that it is easy to show that there is at least a sense of a prima facie wrong in creating these Google bombs, and that those who are creating them are aware, but have decided to suppress, this wrongness. We can see this by imagining that the Discovery Institute (for example) had created a site called "Pharyngula Exposed". After which, a group of creationists spread a meme to create "Google bombs" to elevate this site any time that people searched for "Pharyngula" or ""PZ Myers" or similar terms.

I have no doubt that many of the supporters of PZ Myers, including those who have created 'Google bombs' for ‘Expelled Exposed’ would protest these underhanded, desperate, and ultimately dishonest tactics of the religious fundamentalists for what would be seen as behavior so obviously unethical that only a fundamentalist would be blind to it. They would present this as a case of unfairly exploiting a situation to create an advantage for themselves, and taken as yet another sign of their general lack of ethics in the pursuit of their goals.

That would make many of those who created Google bombs for "Expelled Exposed", and those who defend these tactics, hypocrites. They are advocates of a double standard where, "We may engage in activities that we would condemn if they were used by others against us."

This type of test is only a prima-facie test for moral wrong. It does not tell us how to resolve the conflict. We can restore consistency by either condemning (in the same tone) those who created Google bombs in favor of "Expelled Exposed", or by admitting that no criticism would be justified if the Discovery Institute would have pursued similar tactics against, for example, PZ Myers.

To answer this question we would have to ask whether a person with good desires (which includes an aversion to hypocrisy) would condemn both, or allow both cases to pass uncondemned.

There is an additional complication here, because this is a free speech issue. Free speech issues are those where we must recognize an important distinction between two classes of condemnation. At one level, there is the form of condemnation that takes the form of words and private action alone, but where actual prohibitions are not legitimate. It may be the case that a Google bomb is an action to be condemned at the level of words and private action, but not at the level of prohibition.

A common form of rhetoric that we are seeing with increasing frequency these days is that the 'right to freedom of speech' means more than a right to be free from prohibitions, but a right to be free from criticism. This is not the case. Criticism is also a form of speech and needs to be as free as the speech being criticized. Establishing that people have a free-speech right to create Google bombs only implies that they have the same rights as the KKK member who advocates sending all blacks back to Africa. It is not legitimate to prohibit his statement, but it is certainly legitimate to condemn it.

With this caveat in place, we can take an initial look at the ethics of the Google bomb.

I have described a liar as a type of parasite. Individuals seek to fulfill their desires, but act so as to fulfill their desires given their beliefs. What the liar does is infect his victim with a false belief so that, while the victim thinks his actions are those that will fulfill his own desires, they are in fact actions that fulfill the liar’s desires. The liar parasitically draws upon the time, resources, and will of the victim for his own ends.

The person who creates a “Google bomb” engages in the same type of behavior. Google created its search engines to fulfill a particular end – to provide a particular service to its customers. The person who creates a ‘Google bomb’ infects this entity that Google created with data that aims to manipulate it away from serving Google’s purpose, and towards serving the purpose of the person who created the bomb. The person who creates a Google bomb is a parasite, much like a liar is a parasite.

We can further see this by recognizing the fact that Google has not only a reason to but a right to thwart these attempts. In order to keep its search engine functioning the way that Google wants it to, they have reason to devote resources to identifying and blocking these types of attempts. In a very real sense, the person who creates a “Google bomb” is like a programmer who creates a virus – forcing potential victims to spend their resources on anti-virus software that will block his illegitimate activities. Just as writing and distributing viruses is wrong, the creating and distributing of a “Google bomb’ is also wrong.

Now, there is an additional complication. I have established that the 'Google bomb' is a prima-facie wrong. We are better off if people generally had an aversion to engaging in these types of activities. However, a prima-facie wrong can become justified if the action is taken as retribution against somebody who himself has done wrong.

It is a prima facie wrong to take a person by force and lock him in a place where he does not consent to be. But this prima-facie wrong becomes legitimate when we take this action against somebody who has been proven guilty beyond a reasonable doubt in a court of law of performing a serious crime. We can throw such people in prison.

It is well established that the people responsible for the movie "Expelled" are deceitful and manipulative, and have engaged in a number of wrongful actions in the creation and development of this movie. Furthermore, they have engaged in this unethical activity in pursuit of an end that threatens to do great harm. It is an attempt to introduce mob rule as an element of scientific criticism, which is hazardous to the scientific enterprise itself. It is an attempt to promote ignorance and inhibit understanding of the real world.

Consequently, it may be possible to defend a Google bomb as an attempt to help protect innocent people from the wrongs committed by those who are responsible for the move ‘Expelled’. After all, they have shown themselves to be quite willing to engage in the deceptive manipulation of their victims to serve their own ends. Somebody should take action to protect the victims from this wrongful action.

One of the problems with the Google bomb though is that it involves doing harm to an innocent third party – not just to the perpetrator. This is not like doing harm to the potential rapist who is dragging a woman into a dark alley, but doing harm to somebody who happens to have with Google, to be exact. In preventing a wrong, we can do a lot more to the perpetrator than we can do to an innocent third party.

To what degree does the perpetrator of a Google Bomb have a right to fiddle with Google’s search engine without Google’s consent?

This depends on the magnitude of the wrong being committed against the victim. Clearly, to prevent a rape, I would have moral permission to pick up a bat leaning against wall of an innocent third party and club the rapist with it. To save my neighbor’s house from burning, I have a right to go to his neighbor’s yard and to take a hose, to use it on the fire, without waiting to ask permission.

Yet, in performing these types of actions, we can only do to an innocent third party that which a good person would have given consent to if asked. We can use the hose of the neighbor because a good person would have given our consent if asked. Furthermore, we have a right to do this to an innocent third party only when there is no opportunity to ask for permission. If an opportunity exists to ask permission, then an obligation exists to ask for consent, and to obey the wishes of the individual who refuses to give consent.

There is plenty of time to ask Google for permission to Google bomb the perpetrators of the “Expelled” deception. Google also has very good reason to deny permission. One major reason that Google has for denying permission is that its customers have reason to expect a certain degree of hands-off treatment that assumes that Google will not grant permission to others who wish to “Google Bomb” their site. Google has an implicit (at least) contract with its customers to refuse consent to those who would use these tactics.

So, in this case, even the fact that the perpetrators of the “Expelled” myth are wrong-doers who will victimize others through deception and misinformation fails to justify doing harm to an innocent third party without their consent. Google bombers have no right to parasitically hijack Google’s resources for their own purposes.

A moral person would look for other, more legitimate methods to obtain their ends.

8 comments:

Db0 said...

Interesting. How would you moraly rate google bombing in order to make a site reappear in the google results when the original site was taken down via law abuse? This is what happened with Wikileaks where a lawyer for a Swiss Bank went to a judge and asked it to be taken down. As an immediate step, the judge asked the DNS provider to remove the wikileaks.org entry from their results which forced this domain name to redirect to a not-found result. The IP addess of wikileaks still worked so people google bombed wikileks so that the result would point to the IP instead (even now, the ip is the second result)

Even though this action (taking down the domain registration) was done lawfully and the acting party felt it had the right to do so. Many people disagreed (for many reasons) and took actions into their own hands.

In this case, we did work with Google's algorithms but I would never accept that it was an unethical action, even if Google were to refuse me to do it.

Thus I would argue that, by itself, google bombing is not an unethical action, but it's rather the act that you perpetrate that labels it or not.

Furthermore, I disagree that we would need to seek Google's permission in order to change where and how we link. We are not hacking their site and they have a two-way relationship with everyone is providing correct results. Their search results do not point arbitrarily but rather use our ideas (what we write and how) to calculate correctly. Thus it is perfectly in our rights to link to anywhere we wish.

To get right down to it. I did not participate in the Expelled GBomb either because I considered it a lost cause and unnecessary anyway. I did participate in the Wikileaks one though.
The labeling of the action as ethical or unethical however should be based on the circumstances surrounding it.

In this case, the makers of the movie are deliberately unethical and misleading with their film. Making the debunking stand out better, surely is an ethical action. No?

Pedro Timóteo said...

Alonzo,

although I participated in this Google bomb (first time in my life I did such something like this, in fact), I can't really disagree with you here. We would certainly be calling them unethical monsters if they did something like this, say, to richarddawkins.net.

However, there are still two things that make me think that this is justified.

One of them is the one you mention: they have already lied, and are actively trying to deceive people. If we can reduce the effects of that, it's a good thing. To have people google for Expelled and be confronted with the truth about Expelled is, IMO, good. Much like googling about Scientology and getting xenu.net among the first half dozen results.

The second is that the point here is not to "stop" people getting a link to the Expelled official site. We'd need a lot more organizing to ever do that... and the official site would still be in the second place. No, the point is to get ExpelledExposed just after ExpelledTheMovie. That way, some people may think "hey, I'd better check out this one as well". We aren't trying to suppress Expelled, just making sure people can easily get to the truth about it.

The Barefoot Bum said...

I have no doubt that many of the supporters of PZ Myers, including those who have created 'Google bombs' for ‘Expelled Exposed’ would protest these underhanded, desperate, and ultimately dishonest tactics of the religious fundamentalists for what would be seen as behavior so obviously unethical that only a fundamentalist would be blind to it.

Way to "reason" like a Christian, Alonzo. Where's your evidence? You have none.

This is not merely mistaken, it's a statement without a shred of intellectual integrity or
commitment to the truth.

Whatever little respect I had for your intelligence and honesty has been completely destroyed.

You reason like a Christian and you lie and bullshit like one too. You're a disgrace to atheism, skepticism and free thought.

Lady Monchhichi said...

Hi Alonzo!

I thought I might drop by and say hello since I am the one who started this mess.

I enjoyed your post. I like to read different perspectives, it doesn't anger or scare me. Anyway, keep it up!

Bob said...

Sounds like a question of power and control and whether absolute ownership can justly be given to the titular owner.

Forbidding links? Running Google sitemap in the hope your site's score will be higher? Should Google pay me to run Google sitemap?

My put is, let a million flowers bloom: anything short of theft.

Db0 said...

This is not merely mistaken, it's a statement without a shred of intellectual integrity or
commitment to the truth.


I think you are being a little too aggressive here (and fairly surprised at the response).

Alonzo's phrase explains what the reaction of Atheists would/should be if creationists google bombed the name of "PZ Myers" so that the first result is an anti-evolution, and libel site.

Unless you're doing some kind of inside joke...

Jim Lippard said...

I wrote a post about the NCSE's "Expelled Exposed" website, which is a website for critical information about the film, because I thought it was worthy of mention and note. I didn't do it as a prank, or to cause Google search results to return anything erroneous.

How is that any different than writing a blog post about any other subject, and linking to relevant resources?

I think you should distinguish blog posts like mine and yours from those which simply list various "Expelled"-related search terms and link them to the expelledexposed.com website.

Jim Lippard said...

BTW, the expelledexposed.com site does not show up in at least the first few pages of Google "Expelled" search results. Google-bombing in abusive ways can be counterproductive, because Google can detect and engage in punitive measures, as they do when (for example) the "search engine optimization" (SEO) folks create thousands of spam blogs to generate links for Google-bombing.