Home > Blog, Technology > Morality on the internet

Morality on the internet

Technology journalist Rory Cellan-Jones discussed today how ‘Google‘ and ‘Amazon‘ the giants of the web, are changing. Originally they were created as platforms for users to explore and retrieve any (desired) information. However, ‘morality’ and ‘public’ good is shaping the way these websites work.

Google, has been in the spotlight after steering away from the “it’s not our responsibility” approach to search engine results. Google has announced today that people who search for terms associated or relating to suicide will see a message with contact details for the Samaritans. This link is highly visible for users and can help people who may feel suicidal and need help. This action has also been taken in the US and has resulted in an increase (9%) of calls to the National Suicide Prevention Line.

Google previously insisted that there were only two ways of appearing in its search results:

  • Morally blind choices made by its algorithms
  • Sponsored links and advertisements paid for by those who bid for search terms.

The last reason appears to be for the public good.  This is a change in Google’s approach to morality and the internet.

The world-wide website, Amazon.com has also been discussed. Last night, a post on Twitter revealed a book, currently being sold on the website, apparently promoted pedophilia. Twitter posts conveyed people’s outrage and fury towards such a highly regarded website allowing this publication to be sold. The book appears to have been registered through Amazon’s self-publishing programme, limits are based on what the retailer deems offensive but no detailed guidance explains what ‘is offensive’. The book has now been removed by Amazon.

After reading this article about morality and censorship it is apparent why people feel outraged (especially in the Amazon incident) about the lack of censorship. However, the idea of the world-wide web (www) is predominantly a global world in which participants (users) can browse freely, post and visit any given website address. With large companies on the web, such as Amazon and Google, changing their dynamics, could this cause further disputes? Censorship is an ongoing discussion which requires answers. Who is able to determine the guidelines and boundaries to ensure safer searching on these sites? Surely, changes made (and to be made) affect our personal freedom,  free speech and thought?

It’s given me an idea for my own blog. Perhaps I should add a (help) link to mine, after all I have subjected users to read and endure my work, opinions and views (hopefully balanced). Any suggestions would be appreciated…

See the full article

See my follow up response to this blog post

  1. November 11, 2010 at 4:22 PM

    You’re right. A Google search for “suicide” includes a subtle little message above results with the phone number for the “National Suicide Prevention Lifeline.”

    However, a search for “how to kill yourself” did not.


    • November 11, 2010 at 6:06 PM

      I too tried the search, and when I put in How to kill yourself the first link that popped up was titled…. “Cool ways to kill Yourself.”

      • November 11, 2010 at 10:32 PM

        Wow that’s disturbing.

  2. lbdarling
    November 11, 2010 at 4:42 PM

    I’m tired of living in a world that caters to idiots and children in the name of ‘the greater good’. I’m an adult. I wish to be treated like an adult. I do not wish to have my searches censored or redefined. I do not wish to have books burned/censored/or redefined for me. The answer is really very simple; if you’re a moron, stay off the Internet.

    • Graydon
      November 11, 2010 at 6:23 PM

      I’m of the same mind as you on this issue. Where I come from has increasingly become a nanny-state with rafts of legislation promoted by the government as being ‘for the greater good’ or ‘to protect the vulnerable’. Allowing our elected leaders to introduce censorship in any form is the thin edge of a very thick wedge and as you say, adults are perfectly capable of making their decisions and for taking responsibility for their lives.

      The Nazi Party of 1930’s attempts to censor information by burning books is still within the living memory of many people and many more died to prevent Nazism spreading across Europe. Some of the censored authors included Helen Keller because of her outspoken beliefs on issues such as social justice, pacifism and votes for women. The same political leaders who propose restrictions on Internet content are also the first to condemn other administrations such as China for denying their citizens the right to freely read the thoughts of others.

      Censorship of any kind, regardless of who implements it or their reasons for doing so, is nothing more than a form of mind-control.

    • wannari
      November 11, 2010 at 10:41 PM

      very nicely said! couldn’t agree more,

    • November 12, 2010 at 1:46 AM

      I agree with both of you. While the content of the book mentioned on Amazon is grotesque and widely believed to be immoral and/or a mental disorder, I do not want a person/corporation/government deciding what is appropriate or not appropriate for me to read – or for me to even know that it exists. The fact that the pedophile book even exists is a statement and ignoring statements of that caliber could be dangerous.

    • November 12, 2010 at 1:58 AM

      I am in wholehearted agreement. There should be a line after which every individual is responsible for him- or herself, and his or her children and family. If I were looking up suicide, I don’t see that it’s any of Google’s damn business; it’s not as though they are splashily promoting suicide on their site. If I initiate that search, I’m responsible for the consequences.

      It’s quite easy to stay away from things on the internet that you don’t want to see–just don’t go looking for them. I have not, for example, seen the fabled “two girls, one cup” video, and I by-God never will see it. (If you haven’t seen it, if you don’t know what I’m talking about–trust me when I say that you do not want to know, and live securely and happy in your ignorance.)

    • November 12, 2010 at 8:54 AM

      God it’s nice to see like-minded people. I’ve been reading the comments people are posting about this whole Amazon thing and it’s driving me nuts. I’ve I want to be censored, then I’ll censor myself, thank ye very much. Most days I think this whole “greater good” thing is just a bunch of bull.

  3. November 11, 2010 at 5:05 PM

    Wow this is so interesting…it’s nice to see a company like Google work to make a positive change, think what the world would be like if other huge corporations started following that ideal!

  4. ZennReiki
    November 11, 2010 at 5:14 PM

    A Google Search in Canada provided no service for prevention. I was shocked that there seems to be on line videos of actual suicides. Not sure how real they are, I could not and would not watch one of them.

  5. November 11, 2010 at 5:17 PM

    The commitment of our country to preserve freedom of speech is not meant to preserve the speech (or writings) that everyone likes. That speech is already very free. I don’t think Amazon needed to take the book about pedophilia down. I do not assume that Amazon condones any of the actions written about in any of it’s books. Should they remove all murder mysteries because they don’t condone murder? If they are going to remove this person’s avenue to self-publish the only fair thing is to remove everyone’s.


  6. keroome
    November 11, 2010 at 5:26 PM

    I really can’t decide if these kinds of censorship actions (yes, it is censorship), claiming to be on everyone’s behalf, are really for the betterment of society, or just a reaction to the sqeaky wheel. Yes,the added suicide re-direct has helped, and do we really need a book on how to be a pedophile? It would seem that exists without help. Which of course leads to the question, where is the line? Maybe this questioning leads to an uplifted human consciousness. I am of the belief that consciousness is one thing of which what we all put into it, everyone, at some point, shares. So then the point becomes, what am I going to allow to be my thought? Will it benefit or belittle? And what do I do with what does not uplift? The point I thought hopeful was that a large company is taking responsibility for what it is benefiting (monatarily) from and saying, to me anyway, no- freedom does not give you license. Americans get those two words mixed up all the time.
    Thanks for your blog, very thoughtful.

  7. November 11, 2010 at 5:31 PM

    while a book that promotes pedophilia is reprehensible, censoring it would be moreso (in my opinion of course). its the whole slippery slope idea…i dont know, even writing this is making me second guess my thoughts.

    • November 17, 2010 at 10:54 PM

      Isn’t there a line that must be made between acceptable and unacceptable?

      According to the American mindset, there should be no limits whatsoever, as that would be against our freedoms. But isn’t too much freedom also a curse as much as it is a blessing? If we are too free, slowly but surely, we will realize that we should be free to do ANYthing. Shouldn’t there be a certain order?


  8. November 11, 2010 at 7:36 PM

    Well written Rebecca.

    I am against Google and other big internet companies from pandering to the small minorities under the guise of doing it for the so called “public good”. It is censorship pure and simple.

    We let companies have the “public good” excuse, then they will be filtering our serches and resulte be for animals sake, then to save the wet lands, to help stop extermination of a kind of bettle that no one ever knew existed…you get my point.

    If someone choses to Google, “How to commit suicide” it could also be for well meaning research on a school paper, blog or movie script. The Googler must bear some of the responsibility – just sayin’



  9. November 11, 2010 at 8:16 PM

    However, the idea of the world-wide web (www) is predominantly a global world in which participants (users) can browse freely, post and visit any given website address.

    I have read your text, during I have drunk mulled wine. Fine, I like your text. I tink, it’ s easy, free and spontaneously.

  10. November 11, 2010 at 8:35 PM

    Amazon is not Congress. Congress can make no law abridging your right to free speech. Amazon isn’t Congress. They have a right to deny their services to anyone for any reason. Because you have a right to speak, doesn’t mean you have a right to be heard. If that were actually true, every writer would be legally required to get published and distributed… According to this thread’s definition of “censorship” any time a writer is rejected they are being “censored”. Really? Get over it. If you wish to be treated like an “adult” then think like one….sure everyone can play, but not everyone wins. Life, squared.

  11. Brenda Milouchev
    November 11, 2010 at 9:42 PM

    Isn’t Amazon a private company, so they can choose what books to sell and not sell? Just like if you owned a store, you could choose which products to sell or not sell. Same for Google.

  12. November 11, 2010 at 9:44 PM

    While I don’t mind the addition of the links ot suicide searches, I can;t help but wonder how long before searches such as that are redirected so that you’re forced to go through “help pages” for”your own good”. I am a writer and an artist and I look up some strange things (like t”how hard is it to stab people through the heart”) and the last thing I want when I am mid paragraph of a story and quickly trying to find out something is a redirect to a page to “help” me. It also raises the question how long until these search queries are cataloged by your ISP address and people start checking up on you because you searched for suicide?

    The Amazon issue leaves me equally torn. On one hand I agree fully that that is not “suitable” but the question becomes, do I have the right to tell someone else what is suitable reading material? Does someone else have the right to tell me what is suitable?

    • November 12, 2010 at 2:07 PM

      I’m torn on this one. I do think it’s a good idea to have those additional links for people in true need of help, but as a writer I google a lot of things that have nothing to do with what’s going on in my life and I wondered the same thing, if it may trigger “big brother” to intervene when someone searches for certain things.

      I also think that it’s a slipery slope regarding freedom of speech. Yes, pedophilia is repulsive, but who is making these decisions and what if the next thing is to address a certain religious belief or lifestyle.


  13. winxrocker
    November 11, 2010 at 10:09 PM

    Honestly, Google has always been like that. Along with the fact that they have an intensely great sense of humor, of course.
    I don’t think Amazon has enough resources to monitor what goes on on their sites, but Google does. Google’s whole technology is built around Page Rank, or Pigeon rank, as they prefer to call it.. 😉

  14. November 11, 2010 at 11:01 PM

    There is definitely a thin line between ethical responsibilities and freedom of speech. While I do not agree with censorship in any way (I am an adult who can make my own decisions as to what is “good” or “bad”), but not everyone who uses the internet is in a stable state of mind (pedos, suicidal, maniac). How can companies who distribute information (search engines, publishers, companies like Amazon) be ethically responsible while also respecting first amendment rights? I certainly don’t have an answer, but it’s something I often think about as one who is studying literature—I actually wrote a post similar to this a couple days ago, “Censorship: The Leading Cause of Blidness” http://mahamuslimah.wordpress.com/2010/11/06/censorship-the-leading-cause-of-blindness/

  15. November 11, 2010 at 11:20 PM

    That’s a nice thing to do by Google! It’s really nice to see bigger corporations do things for people in general!!! 🙂

  16. jean-philippe
    November 12, 2010 at 1:58 AM

    “Censorship is an ongoing discussion which requires answers”

    I don’t think it can be answered. The best I can come up with is from Chomsky:

    “If we do not believe in freedom of speech for those we despise we do not believe in it at all.”

    – Noam Chomsky

    To me, horrendous books are like whether gays right to marry: if you’re against it, well, don’t marry someone from your same sex.

    • emanuelle_esposti
      November 16, 2010 at 2:21 PM

      I would venture to add another famous quote along similar lines:

      “I do not agree with what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it” (Voltaire)

      Freedom of speech is not something that can be compromised or censored – because as soon as we try to influence or change what people say or think, then we are no longer living in a free world.

  17. November 12, 2010 at 2:23 AM

    i think these sights changing direction is a good thing. if people want to find this type of information or purchase these types of books, im sure there is still plenty of smaller sites they can get them from. this isnt any kind of forced censorship, but these bigger sites are respecting the wishes of the tons of people who shop or search there and doing their part to help clean up the steaming pile of filth that is the internet. i always said that the internet had the potential to be mans greatest invention…too bad it was invented by man.

  18. November 12, 2010 at 2:38 AM

    I don’t really see how it’s Google’s responsibility. If I go to a library (those still exist right?) and do a research project on suicide, I don’t want the librarian coming over and saying “hey, here’s a number you might want to call…”

    Sure, one might say “that’s heartless, Google’s just trying to help”, but it’s a slippery slope. What happens when it goes from being helpful to trespassing on my privacy? If I search “suicide” for some reason, I don’t want the police being dispatched to my house. Nor do I want it to start blocking sites because Google thinks they might be dangerous to me. Google should be nothing more than a search engine, it doesn’t need a conscience.

  19. November 12, 2010 at 5:04 AM

    Isn’t google’s motto “First do no harm”? This is an interesting look into something that may have much larger ramifications than we can even imagine. With all the confidence we place in google (i.e. rights to every thing we use through them: search results, emails, videos via Youtube, etc) they could rule the world some day. Let’s hope they don’t stray from their motto.

  20. November 12, 2010 at 5:45 AM

    I found it to be very interesting. Unfortunately the World is a disturbed place, and there are people out there who thrive off of reading books about pedophilia. Its nasty and disgusting, but true. That why they have chemical castrations in some states, and they are working on implementing full castration. I agree with it too. I’ll be the 1st to admit that I’m a little different, but my morals are atleast in descent standings. I agree with a little sensorship here and there.


  21. November 12, 2010 at 6:12 AM

    I think certain levels of censorship are appropriate for certain age levels. Once you’re an adult, you should basically have the right to go where you like and read what you want, so long as it doesn’t harm or exploit anyone (including yourself), and as long as it’s not illegal.

    If an adult wishes to visit an adult site, that’s their business, and that website has a legal obligation to advertise that its content is 18+. As long as that law is followed, it’s fine.

    But when it comes to a community site which is rated G or PG, I think censorship is appropriate, and that parents should have the right to know that sites with that rating moderate their content appropriately for that age-group.

    As an example, I have a beef with EA Games at the moment, because they won’t moderate their Sims 3 Home website properly. People keep uploading pornographic images into their Exchange (a section where players can upload stuff they’ve made and download stuff from others) and it takes hours for the moderators to remove them once incidents have been reported.

    I think it’s grossly negligent of a company like EA to fail to block pornographic images from their site when it’s rated PG 13+ and visited by children everyday. This is one area where I think censorship should be in place.

    In the case of someone Googling “suicide” because they’re thinking about it, that’s an emergency situation, and I think it’s absolutely appropriate for Google to put notices up there to direct people to those who can help. There have been so many teen suicides just in the past few weeks, not to mention adults, that something like this is really needed.

  22. November 12, 2010 at 6:34 AM

    Sorry, but Amazon’s decision to remove the book is not censorship or an attack on free speech. The writer of that book is still free to publish and distribute it. Amazon is a business, not a public service agency. They do not exist to promote fairness or any other kind of societal ideal. They exist to make money. If a whole bunch of people are outraged by a particular title, that could affect Amazon’s bottom line; so, they yank the book.

  23. itcoop
    November 12, 2010 at 7:59 AM

    Clicking on your “suicide” link to Google, I see an Ad on the right corner. Maybe google is different in the US. Could it be that the Samaritans bid for the search term? If I search for “buy bible” I get an ad from buybible.com This must mean that Google condones “bible buying” from buybible.com if someone searches for it. Is it “Google morality” or could this just be paid-for advertising?
    Censorship is suppression of speech or other communication which may be considered objectionable, harmful, sensitive, or inconvenient to the general body of people as determined by a government, media, or other controlling body. I don’t consider Amazon a government, media (news source), or a controlling body; Amazon is a retailer with a virtual storefront. Now, if the government says, “remove this book or else…” that, to me, is censorship. Amazon’s right to choose whether to sell something should be protected – it is based on what is good for their business. If not, then why isn’t it considered “censorship” when an author is denied a book deal from all publishers they submit their works to?

  24. November 12, 2010 at 8:55 AM

    Loved the post. It’s nice to see people still exist that are able to look at things objectively.

  25. mhbenton
    November 12, 2010 at 10:25 AM

    It must be remembered that Google and Amazon are “for-profit” companies, not government agencies or benevolent non-profit research centers. Regardless of their perceived aspect of serving the public good, their motive is profit. They do not exist to promote academic research or to provide the public with unfettered access to a world of knowledge; they provide services intended to make shareholders money.

    Anytime their public image is soiled, they will take corrective action. In the example of Amazon, they only banned the book when it became a public relations issue. In other words, they bowed to public pressure. While Google might be taking the moral high ground with the issue of suicide, it is a good bet their change is a reaction to some sort of public pressure. These companies, as well as most out there, craft images to add to their bottom line profit and shy away from issues that are controversial, especially on moral issues.

    In fairness, we cannot expect a company to act is a way that harms its self-interests. While companies like Google and Amazon are on the forefront of this issue, the true culprit is a public, in general, that is so thin-skinned it is unable to overlook the repugnant aspects of an unregulated system. In that respect, both companies are simply mirrors of the society in which they live.

  26. November 12, 2010 at 11:44 AM

    The morality of the On-line giants is a little disturbing. Is this another example of our views and opinions being curved and limited to restricted information.

    The change in dynamics and added morality is disturbing especially when put under pressure, if such morality continues by on-line giants we wont be finding ‘free’ information but information which they deem to be free. If the on-line giants under pressure decide not to hold and show results for events unfolding between Israel and Palestine then we will know no better and the freedom of free information will be held from us.

    This news deserves more attention as this is a bigger problem.

  27. November 12, 2010 at 1:08 PM

    I do not know the answer to this – to we live in a controlled marxist style state where we are protected from what is on the internet, when we are protected from ourselves? Or do we give ultimate power to the person as their own autonomous being like a true democracy ‘should’?


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    • itcoop
      November 12, 2010 at 7:09 PM

      “I do not agree with what you have to say, but I’ll defend to the death your right to say it.”
      – Voltaire

      If I exercise my ultimate personal power and refuse to read a book about pedophilia in my home I think everyone would agree that I would not be participating in censorship. If I own a business, I don’t think my rights would change; I’ll continue to choose to sell what *I* want in *my* business. If someone doesn’t like what I sell, they can go somewhere else.

      Why should Amazon/Google not be afforded the same rights that we enjoy? No one’s rights have been violated here. In fact, should one force Amazon or Google to act differently, it is they who violate the rights of others.

      Now, if the government (or a democratic voting population, for that matter) says to Amazon: “Thou shalt not sell pornography…” this is tyrannical censorship and should be challenged – to the death.

      • December 9, 2010 at 3:11 AM

        Companies do not have the same rights as people. They are not legally the same.

        What if you had a book store and refused to stock any book that wasn’t written by a straight white male?

        If you provide a service to the public, you cannot cherry pick.

        Not that I am defending pedos or pedolit, it makes me ill to think about it.

        But it’s an interesting discussion point at which point does a bookseller’s personal qualms get to be imposed on the buying public?

        when it’s pedo lit?

        when it’s porn

        when it’s erotica

        when it’s hate literature

        if we want to eliminate unsavory and evil speech, the best way to do that is expose it to sunshine – that’s the best sanitizer

        forcing it underground gives it cache

        That said, technically Amazon was not selling pedophile books, someone who wrote one took advantage of their sell your own book service.

  28. ryoko861
    November 12, 2010 at 1:55 PM

    If I’m going to kill myself the last thing I would do is Google it. Or find a book on it. It’s not hard to kill yourself.

    As far as children doing searches of such things or more, isn’t that what parental controls are for? How about “supervision”? Wow, what a concept for some parents!

    I really don’t think you can or should put the responsibility of someones death or attempt of on Google or Amazon or anyone like that. They’re function is to provide us with the results of what we want to search for. The next thing we’re all going to hear is that YouTube has been taken to court because so and so died from leaning how to jump his bike from watching someone do it on their site. Where does it end?

    And maybe Amazon should remove their “Self Publishing” feature. Obviously, it has some problems.

    I think it boils down to this: Take responsibility for yourself and stop blaming others for your mistakes or actions.

  29. November 12, 2010 at 2:22 PM

    “Nghiand04” on Google !

  30. November 12, 2010 at 4:05 PM

    Back about 10/15 years, AOL used to censor search results – so a woman looking up “breast cancer” would be blocked from seeing results because of the word breast being deemed by the programming as a bad porn word.

    It is not the place of companies or governments to determine individual morality especially by censoring access to information.

    Censoring, banning or prohibition just sends the product/beliefs underground to fester – sunshine is the best sanitizer to what’s socially unacceptable.

    Be mad not at Amazon for selling the book through a self publishing program (after all, censoring defeats the purpose of the self-publishing program), be mad at the author of the book – if the book really is an endorsement – did anyone upset even bother to read it to find out if there’s offensive content?

    Google’s approach of linking relevant ads to keywords isn’t exactly censorship, but providing companion information – although, clearly they need to work on a few programming matters so that other phrases like “how to kill yourself” or keywords of common methods – overdose, hanging, wrist slashing

    In many way’s it’s not down to Google to do this, since they are pointing to information, not generating it – perhaps it’s the people putting the information out there who need to be taken to task and be accountable for what content they share.

  31. sayitinasong
    November 12, 2010 at 5:46 PM

    With huge companies like Amazon, I would think it would be near impossible to gevern all the content of the publications they sell (especially self-publishing) not saying that is an excuse to sell guestionable contect, just saying maybe they are not ready to handle self-publishing…

  32. November 13, 2010 at 4:03 AM

    I see some discussion on whether or not it was morally acceptable for Amazon to let a book on pedophilia be sold on their site. And before I go on, I should probably say that I in no way support pedophilia or anything that has anything to do with the degradation of a child. That being said, where does the moral obligation lie? Not the website, they’ve created a place to buy and sell products, many of which people will find controversial. Honestly, everything lies in the hands of the person, and notice I did not say the people or the public. I mean that the choice of what moral and immoral is something that only the individual can choose. So, a pedophile does have the right to choose to write a book about pedophilia. Thankfully, I reserve the right to throw said pedophile into a prison and you can’t really have one without the other.

  33. November 13, 2010 at 8:17 AM

    It’s not that we believe Google is evil. What we believe is that Google, Inc. is at a fork in the road, and they have some big decisions to make.

  34. Stephen Mc Elligott
    November 14, 2010 at 4:30 PM

    very informative, thank you for this post.


  35. sinwithme
    November 14, 2010 at 5:17 PM

    A preferred “amoral Google”, we have enough moralist around, so I want moral free area at least from search engine 🙂

  36. November 15, 2010 at 10:27 PM

    I am glad my article has received such enormous feedback. After a few days I have now expanded upon this article. See: https://rebeccacraft.wordpress.com/2010/11/15/morality-on-the-internet-revisited/ for my follow-up article. Views and comments will again be greatly appreciated.
    Thanks, Rebecca.

  37. November 18, 2010 at 4:55 PM

    Vital words. Thank you for your sincerity. Courage. Ebullience. I salute you.

  1. November 11, 2010 at 4:31 PM
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  3. November 12, 2010 at 3:23 PM
  4. November 14, 2010 at 11:24 PM
  5. November 28, 2010 at 7:31 PM
  6. November 30, 2010 at 10:06 PM

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