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Monday, July 14, 2008

"Cry [Censorship] and Let Slip the Dogs of [Regulation]!" - A Lesson in the Dangers of Googlephobia
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Visitors may have heard that Google was craftily censoring us. Our good friend and invaluable Technology Liberation Front commenter Richard Bennett blogged over the weekend about how Google seemed to block access to our site when he tried to search for "net neutrality."

This is one of the most amazing things I've ever seen. Google is blocking net neutrality documents from the PFF's web site, but documents in the same format that deal with other subjects are not flagged "dangerous."

This is really outrageous, and a clear example of the problem with a monopoly gatekeeper.

This story made the rounds this morning and much of the DC Internet policy community was atwitter with allegations of censorship by Google. But as I explain in the comment I tried (unsuccessfully) to post on Richard's blog, this is all an innocent and unfortunate misunderstanding:

Everyone at PFF appreciates your concern, Richard, but what actually happened is quite benign; Google was not certainly censoring anyone!

Here's what happened... Unlike the rest of our site, our "Issues & Publications" system relies on an SQL database--which, like any SQL database, is vulnerable to certain kinds of attack. We recently noticed such an attack and took steps to solve the problem. This is standard operating procedure for anyone running a site with an SQL database.

The Google search engine relies on the "Badware Website Clearinghouse" kept by StopBadWare.org. The StopBadware project is a very helpful "neighborhood watch" campaign led by the good folks associated with the Berkman Center at Harvard. StopBadware works with Google to automatically identify sites that might contain badware, as their FAQ explains.

Once a site is flagged, a warning message will arise when someone attempts to visit the site from the Google search engine or if one is using Google desktop or certain other firewall tools that aim to protect users from visiting dangerous sites.

The reason you encountered that warning page is that our site was quite accurately flagged as potentially dangerous and we had not yet completed the procedure for having our site removed from the Badware Website Clearinghouse, which is explained here:

We consider the StopBadware a valuable self-help tool for protecting Internet users from potentially harmful software and applaud Google for its leadership in this area. If this incident demonstrates anything, it's that an educational campaign would help users understand how the process works, why it's good for all Internet users and that it is NOT censorship.

This incident demonstrates two more things: Far too many tech policy observers (including some in the sometimes-factious free market camp) have a hair-trigger reaction to anything involving either (1) Google and (2) censorship. The combination of the two is downright explosive.

In this particular case, Richard's concern is understandable, if misplaced: A number of other people wondered whether Google was somehow blocking access to our site when they tried to access articles on our site over the weekend.

But in general, this should be a lesson to us all: We should all be a little more careful before making allegations of censorship, monopoly or other abuses. This kind of tempest-in-a-teapot is exactly what drives bad public policy: Even if the misunderstanding is corrected quickly, many will remember only the unfounded allegations of abuse, and the political climate will be shifted (if inadvertently) toward regulation based on purely imaged harm.

Even the most tech-savvy among us should be sure to investigate the technical aspects of what we see online before leaping to conclusions-especially given the pace of innovation on the Internet.

posted by Berin Szoka @ 12:00 PM | Internet

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Hi Berin,

Thanks for posting this great clarification of what happened! Please let me know if there's anything we at StopBadware can do to help out.

I just want to clarify who does the actual flagging of compromised websites. That is in fact Google, specifically their safer searching / anti-malware team, and not StopBadware.org or the Berkman Center. Google's warnings are entirely based on their own internal systems for identification of malware distribution; StopBadware comes in simply to help site owners who want to remove the warnings in learning about badware and getting the warnings removed.

StopBadware sees our role in the process as an external fail-safe. Our public reviews process is an assurance that Google search users and webmasters alike can request an independent review of any flagged site from a nonprofit organization. We do our best to make the reviews process as transparent as possible. For example, anyone interested in the progress of the PFF review can follow its status here:

Anyone with questions or concerns about the process is invited to contact me directly, at egeorge AT cyber.law.harvard.edu.

StopBadware.org staff

Posted by: Erica George, StopBadware.org at July 14, 2008 3:08 PM

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