Essays: Jeffrey Rosen on Google’s Gatekeepers |
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Jeffrey Rosen on Google’s Gatekeepers

Published on November 28, 2008, Jeffrey Rosen’s long and comprehensive New York Times article about Google, YouTube, and the question of censorship is a milestone in recent journalism. A lawyer himself (and a professor of law at George Washington University), Rosen is well equipped to discuss the legal ins and outs. He writes admirably clear prose and knows how to order his points for narrative and drama. In addition, he has the New York Times behind him when he seeks to gain access to the web executives who are making the decisions. These executives include all the current top brass at Google. As he secures an in-depth interview with the mighty deputy general counsel Nicole Wong herself, journalists from less powerful organizations can only look on in wonder. A freelancer would be lucky if she volunteered the time of day, and no blogger, of course, could even dream of getting within a mile of her door, let alone through it. At her headquarters in the Mountain View Googleplex, California, Nicole Wong receives Rosen face to face and gives him the low-down. But the questions are asked on his terms, and she is forced into some uncomfortable answers.

On the whole he is satisfied by the integrity of the doyenne and her team, but can’t help wondering what will happen when the day comes, as come it might, when another generation of top echelon executives, probably corporate lawyers, starts to favour market forces over the company’s self-imposed obligation to guard information about users. Nicole Wong is a lawyer herself but she has a solid set of ethics which include a lively notion of the right to privacy and how a local government, anywhere in the world, might want to violate that according to its own requirements. The hard information about how there have been several such violations already is chilling. So is the news about how many countries have already mirrored the example of Turkey in wanting material taken down that infringes their laws or sectarian sensibilities. 

So far Google has tried to satisfy local laws and defy the sectarian sensibilities, but that might change even in America, where there are plenty of pressure groups who regard the First Amendment as an incitement to subversion. YouTube bans religious hatred videos in all countries but there has been at least one case of a decision taken at low level within Google to cave in against pressure and take down an anti-jihad video because it might offend jihadis. Once the low-level decisions are referred to a higher level one can hope for more wisdom, but the sheer volume of incoming material is a factor. Did you know that the video material on YouTube increases at the rate of sixteen hours a day? Neither did I, but thanks to Jeffrey Rosen I do now. This is a brilliantly informative article, a model of the genre, and I link to it here in full confidence that it will become a permanent reference point for anyone who reads it. If you’re working in the web but haven’t seen this, you’re in the dark. And speaking of web darkness, there is a link to another landmark Rosen article, “The End of Obscenity”, which appeared in the Summer 2004 issue of The New Atlantis. The article is a learned discussion of a Supreme Court decision but once again Rosen’s talent as a journalist makes a complex issue clear in all its aspects. Rosen is also a dazzling impromptu speaker, as the appended video dauntingly proves.

Read Jeffrey Rosen’s New York Times article “Google’s Gatekeepers .

Read Jeffrey Rosen’s New Atlantis article on web pornography.

Jeffrey Rosen speaks on privacy (YouTube).