April 15, 2008
In the last week a story from England has gained considerable notoriety due to the troubling questions it raises about the political neutrality of searches conducted by Google, the internet search behemoth. In March 2008, Englands Christian Institute (the Institute) informed Google U.K. that it wished to place this ad (see below) to promote its pro-life papers when Google visitors searched for abortion service websites:
In an e-mail dated March 19, 2008, Google U.K. denied the Institutes request to place the advertisement on pages producing abortion-related search results. Google stated that it denied placement because Google policy does not permit the advertisement of websites that contain abortion and religion-related content. Additionally, Google noted that it retained the right to exercise editorial discretion when it comes to the advertising we accept on our site.
No further explanation was given until April 10th, when Google U.K.s media office issued the following comment: We only allow ads that have factual information about abortion.
Googles insulting comment speaks volumes about the companys prejudices. My quick review of papers posted on the Institutes website found studies that thoughtfully combined Christian Biblical teaching, Christian ethical analysis, accurate discussion of scientific facts, and reasonable public policy conclusions. For example, the 76-page study on the Morning-After-Pill is very well reasoned even if does not come to the same conclusions Googles staff would reach about the ethics of using emergency contraception.
Well, this story will continue to develop because the Institutes attorneys wrote to Google informing them that the companys actions violate the U.K.s Equality Act of 2006. Apparently, that law prohibits religious discrimination in the provision of a good, facility or service, and the Institutes attorneys believe its actions fall within protections afforded by the law. If courts in the United Kingdom interpret such laws in a manner similar to the way an American court would, the Institute probably has a good case.
This will be an important legal contest for the United Kingdom should it go to court. If Christian organizations can be banned from advertising on pages produced by specific search terms then freedom of speech on the internet is in grave danger. If push comes to shove, Google may find that millions upon millions of Christian web users can take their searches elsewhere, and Googles stock price has already lost around $300 from its 52-week high.