If you think the creep of invisible censorship won't affect you, think again. The private control of so many of the tools of communication has made insidious forms of censorship commonplace. Just this week Google took exception to me expressing my personal opinion about a news event and suspended my ad campaign on their site. As of today, when you type in the words "Anita+Roddick" into the Google search engine, you won't find AnitaRoddick.com until the ninth or tenth page of search results. I am virtually invisible.
[Update: Since this dispatch was posted, AnitaRoddick.com has moved up in the Google search results and I have made an uneasy peace with Google.]
Yet again, I said something that makes people nervous. The truth tends to do that. This time, it's a comment I made on my website about the apparently homicidal actor John Malkovich which has caused the world's leading search engine to refuse to run ads for AnitaRoddick.com.
It began on Monday when I posted a short comment on this site about Malkovich's public threat to shoot Scottish MP George Galloway and Independent reporter Robert Fisk. In that three-sentence notice, I called Malkovich a "vomitous worm."
I stand by that characterization. Threatening to kill someone simply because you do not agree with his opinion is beyond the pale, especially in this age of terrorist threats. I was, and others should be, outraged at such reckless aggression. No religion in the world -- not Islam, not Christianity, not Judaism -- advocates the execution of those who do not share the same belief system. As Galloway said, if Malkovich's threat was a joke it wasn't funny, and if it wasn't a joke Malkovich should be ashamed.
Shortly after I made the "vomitous worm" statement on my site, the advertising staff at the Google search engine said they had suspended the advertising campaign we had running on their website. They said that my ad (which, ironically, read simply "AnitaRoddick.com: Uncensored.") violated their editorial policy against "sites that advocate against groups or individuals." But I note that they did not pull my ad when I criticized the World Bank, or Citigroup, or Nike for their equally deplorable behavior. By this same logic, no one could advertise who maligned any human being, be it Stalin, Hitler, or even bin Laden. Google would be hard-pressed to find any advertisers at all who would comply, beyond their core group of herbal breast-enhancement salesmen, cheap Viagra vendors, and pornography sites (which, by a certain logic, malign women).
My website editor, Brooke Shelby Biggs, spoke to the Google team this week about their policy. They said that they do not accept ads for sites with any political content that could be perceived as "anti-" anything. They assured her that they would have dealt similarly with anti-KKK sites, anti-Osama bin Laden sites, and anti-Hitler sites. (They also, notably, ban pro-KKK and pro-Nazi sites from the AdWords program.) Said AdWords Director Sheryl Sandberg, "We are sorry we have to pull ads for sites like Anita's, but the alternative is really bad; you wouldn't want us running KKK ads." Think again, Sheryl. I'm for the free exchange of ideas, even the ones I disagree with. I wish Google were, too.
The world according to Google: If you don't have something nice to say, don't say anything at all. This is the tyranny of the unimaginative. And it should make the weblogging world nervous. Expressing a personal opinion on a personal site about a well-publicized news event or public figure can be grounds for rejection from Google's advertising programs.
This essentially means no news publication that carries editorials or critical reviews -- and virtually no weblog that carries sarcastic or critical opinions, which is to say, most of them -- may participate in the AdWords program. This is obviously not enforced as strongly when it comes to major media conglomerates: the New York Times (which carries anti-Bush columns by Paul Krugman and anti-Democrat columns by William Safire regularly) is allowed to maintain an AdWords campaign. TownHall.com, an aggregator of vitriolic conservative pundits, also enjoys the AdWords team's favor. (Townhall.com, you will recall, ran Ann Coulter's column wherein she called for the US to invade all Muslim countries, kill their leaders, and forcibly convert their citizenry to Christianity.)
Sandberg, to her credit, admitted both of these cases technically violate the policy, and said she would "look at them." And again to her credit, she admits that the policy is impossible to apply with any consistency or fairness, because a human reviews every site for which an AdWords ad is purchased. "Obviously, we can't read every word of every site. If we see something on the front page that violates the policy, we suspend the ad." So because my comment on Malkovich was on the front page, while Coulter and Krugman's columns were not, my site gets the shaft and the Times and TownHall.com carry on.
This is not the first time I have had an ad censored. In 1998 Mattel sent The Body Shop a cease-and-desist order, demanding we pull our self-esteem posters featuring Ruby -- a rubenesque anti-Barbie -- from American shop windows, because she was insulting to the real Barbie. Then, in Hong Kong, posters of Ruby were banned on the Mass Transit Railway because authorities said that in her nude (albeit nippleless and pubic-hair-free) condition, she would offend passengers. One shop in the US was forced to take down a Ruby poster after a mall patron said his daughter had been traumatized by seeing it.
Several mall owners objected to our poster for the self-tanning lotion called "Fake It," which featured a photo of a man's swim briefs with a bottle of the lotion shoved down the front. A few uptight mall managers said the poster was too risqué for tender American sensibilities.
Our "Turn Your Armpits Into Charmpits" poster for men's deodorant was the subject of controversy after some passersby thought it had some sort of homosexual subtext.
And when my most recent book came out, I tried to buy billboards along the public railway tracks to publicize some of the anti-globalization messages in the book. One billboard that was rejected simply read, "Companies must show more developed emotions than fear and greed." I'm not sure what was offensive about that, but Railtrack rejected it. They also rejected the billboard with a picture of Jesus on the cross above the New York Stock Exchange trading floor, but perhaps I understand that one better.
Technically, none of this is censorship in the strictly legal sense, but it is dangerous nonetheless. More and more private companies control the media; anyone who wants visibility has to pay for it, and then free speech is subject to "editorial policies" crafted by lawyers aiming to protect someone from the spectre of an informed and potentially angry public. (It's no secret that Google is running scared from the litigious Church of Scientology, which no doubt is influencing its gun-shy ad policies.)
And it's disappointing from a company usually so ahead of the curve, such as Google. The suppression of free expression is no laughing matter, especially on the Internet, where information and opinion are the currency of a community. Google's insistence that its unexpurgated search results more than make up for this slight to the weblog community should be of no comfort. The truth is, the Times can play, and you can't, and it isn't about what's best for the user. It's about protecting the best interests of Google's bottom line, marketplace of ideas be damned.