Why we shouldn't let Google (or anyone else) claim their private services are public spaces

Photo: Shutterstock.

At Google+, Tom Anderson argues that Google's "don't be offensive" policy is good precisely because Google+ is a public space.

On the contrary, it's the insistence that Plus is a public space that makes such policies troublesome, rather than mere quality control.

Conduct rules are, by and large, a good thing for any private venue that wants to avoid turning into a cesspool. They're desirable in all sorts of other private contexts, too; a good example is a newspaper that doesn't want to publish every deranged Letter to the Editor that comes in, or a quiet restaurant that needs to turf out an abusive patron. Guests in your home can't demand the right to say anything they like in your lounge.

Likewise, deleting offensive content would be just fine if Google stopped marketing Plus as a public venue where you (rather than Google) can express your "real life" personal identity.

No-one—not MG Siegler (whose naughty avatar precipitated this mini-fuss) or anyone else—has the right to be published by Google. So everything Tom says about social networks applying policies is just fine—so long as they don't claim to be public spaces.

By doing this, Google's encouraging a kind of double-think. It's private in all the respects that serve Google's business interests and protect it from liability and risk, but public in all the respects that make us want to use it. But in trying to have its cake and eat it, Google ends up staking an implicit claim to quality-control over what people think is public speech.

It's telling that Tom offers shoppings malls as an example of a "public" place similar to Google+. In fact, almost all malls are entirely private settings, which is why they have the right to boot out people wearing offensive shirts. Just because lots of people are somewhere, that does not make it public.

Google might not be evil, but there are plenty of evil people who stand to benefit from the blurring of public and private life; and who'd love to take advantage of the systems it's building to maintain a close eye on all of it.

Does it really need to be explained why all this is bad? The courts have spent centuries determining reasonable limits of free speech in public settings: we don't need private corporations absorbing the public sphere, providing governments and themselves easy mechanisms to marginalize anyone unwilling or unable to play nice inside the walled gardens.

The U.S. Constitution defines a right to free speech for many reasons, not least because it's never just about the proverbial middle finger. The rationale of public decency and safety can be extended to silence critics, as well as coax decency out of scandalous, unshaven thugs like MG Siegler.

Don't let private companies represent themselves as public spaces. 'Cause they ain't.


    1. Everything on Google+ is Public, so there is no harm in us mining everything you post to build advertising portfolios for sale.  Everything on Google+ has to follow our private rules, to be nice and clean.
      No one will pay us for targeted advertising to a Nym, even if the nym is your actual identity except for some meatspace paperwork.
      We aren’t a social network we are an identity service, but only your REAL identity will do.

      Borrowed from someone along my travels online….
      Google lets you put your friends in circles… you know who else did this?  Dante.

  1. Just not when they claim to be public spaces.

    I think you are missing the point with this statement. The internet isn’t a matter of what people “claim it to be”, it is a matter of what it is.

    It doesn’t matter how G+ is marketed or who buys into it, or uses it. What matters are the actual forces at work. By continuing in this vein you’ve got going now you just set yourself up as an alternate polemic… The sort of take it or leave it alternative.

    I realize your affection for the 1984 scenario, but your claim of sorts with your mention of “double-think” isn’t faithful to the scenario as you describe it. In the novel no one had a choice… On the other hand the internet is nothing but choice. You can choose to not use G+ at anytime, that was not a viable option in the George Orwell story.

    So in all of this you are avoiding the real question. What is the status of the internet? Public,  private, or is it some other mash-up entirely? I don’t know about you but I think it is somewhere in-between.

    1. What is the status of the internet? Public,  private, or is it some other mash-up entirely?

      That’s a misleading question, and confuses the technologies involved.

      The “Internet,” as such, is largely a privately-run common carrier network like the voice landline system. It is private property, but subject to a significant number of rules as to how much discretion it can exercise over content, specifically because it is a vital method for transporting constitutionally-protected speech.

      However, the servers that run the websites that most people think of as being “the Internet” are (almost all) private, full-stop. They are owned by private organizations, and are not subject to the same rules about the transport of free speech. Facebook is not a public forum; they can censor as they please, and there is largely nothing than can be done about it.

      The problem, as the article accurately posits, is that it is in these companies’ interest to portray their services as public resources that are content-neutral, when they clearly are not.

      1. I agree with Xof. Rob, are you saying that Google has said Google+ is a public space in the same way that, say, a street is a public space? To me, it was clear when I signed up for it that it’s Google’s space and it’s their right to define the rules, as a mall or any other website would. 
        If I’m reading you right, your point is that Google markets G+ as a public space, but they have a terms of use agreement, and that is inconsistent with a public space. So are there specific pages/marketing pieces you can point to in which Google defines G+ as “public” in the sense of a street, and not just “public” in the sense that more or less anyone can use it?

        1. It often uses language that places it explicitly in that kind of public context, but it’s not as explicit as saying, “Google+ is a public street.”

          On its homepage, it’s described as like “sharing in real life” and “connecting in the real world”. “Real life” scenarios are frequently found in Plus marketing and a good example of why it’s fair to look at it as a whole, not just the specific terms used.

          That said, the words do highlight its public nature, exhorting people to use it to share pictures, thoughts, work with the public. The original press release, describing a reason to use the circles feature: “Every online conversation … is a public performance.”

          There are policy specifics, too — “In order to use Google+, you need to have a public Google Profile … (etc).” — though the context there seems more like just a way to indicate that it’s online. 

          It’s abundantly clear that Google intends people to treat Plus as a platform for self-expression. The policies are there (and there’s nothing wrong with them) but they’re vague and inconsistently enforced.

          Again, the offensiveness policies aren’t the problem; the problem is the intentional blurring of public and private space to its own benefit, and whose interests that ultimately serves.

          1. Rob, I think you put too much heart into the, “marketing” language. Sure Google is being misleading, but isn’t that the status quo and reasonably expected whenever we deal with “marketing” language. Distrust is inherent with such language. Don’t you play the clueless bit if you put your trust there? 

            By addressing such language, you are legitimating and dignifying what is already suspect, and by taking such offense, you are simply shooting fish in a political barrel. You are not actually addressing the underlying question as to what these networks actually are.

            What metaphor describes the right mix of public private trade off, that should be reasonably expected? Obviously Google’s marketing language has it wrong… what does right look like? This is at the heart of my inquiry here, what does right look like?

            Taking down the suspect (marketing) language is easy, explaining the functional and technical reasoning behind your politics takes a great deal more thought (RE; just like the lack of generalized knowledge & education on SOPA). So you are mad a G+, but what should be the appropriate expectation based upon the existing technology?

            What is the reasonable expectation? Sure G+ is not a full public space, but is the mall analogy appropriate? You are in public view, people congregate there, but there are rights that are reserved for the property holder. How does this functional definition then align with the associated politics? And are there any conflicts (RIM/BART et al)?

      2. Agreed.  I think Rob is confusing the concepts involved.  He’s conflating the concepts of public vs. private ownership and public vs private access.  G+, shopping malls, and Zucotti Park, are privately owned public spaces.  The Oval Office is a publicly-owned private space.  There is no correlation between the type of ownership and access.

        Just about every publicly accessible space has limits on what you can do there, whether or not its privately or publicly owned.   

        1. No, I just think that G+ is a privately-owned private space representing itself as a public space without understanding (or caring) why that’s troublesome.

          If G+ is a privately-owned public space akin to a ungated park or a mall subject to public right of way, then isn’t any website accepting user submissions also public space?

        2. Shopping malls aren’t public spaces. They’re private spaces to which the public is granted access at certain times. There’s a huge difference.

          1. Public malls are ‘public’ and are not ‘private’ they can kick people out for various reasons but they are absolutely open to ‘the public’, they can’t discriminate and say ‘no blacks allowed’ but on the other hand one could absolutely open an ‘whites only private mall’ if one were so inclined. Huge difference indeed, isn’t semantics fun?!

        3. brillow is correct. My head spun when reading Rob’s post for the same reason. G+ is clearly a privately owned service (like a mall). Google gets to set the rules of acceptable behavior and access, just like a dress code in a mall or restaurant. 

          Just because entry is fairly liberal and lots of people are allowed in doesn’t mean that it is a public space (like a street or park, which are government-owned).

          In general free speech rights are meant to protect individuals from government on public “property”. Such issue is mute on actual defined private property.

      3. I phrased the question in the way that I did to accurately reflect the online political sentiments that are memed repeatedly and often supported by this site, and I meant to imply that those political sentiments often do not align with the functional description of web technology that you so eloquently describe here.

        I’m not sure if you really thought through my question before you dismissed it as “misleading”. A billboard is privately owned but publically viewable. A parking lot is private property but laws still affect the behaviors that one might engage in there, just the same as a public park.

        So what mix is the internet? What is speech? Who controls whose rights? All these questions are parented by the public or private? question. You can’t, in good faith, complain about BART or RIM with with the description you provide. Yet what seems to be the raison d’etre for these sort of complaints in the first place? A dissatisfaction with the trade-off between public and private. Almost as if Google’s, or RIM’s “marketing” is now somehow imbued with a sort of sovereignty.

        This strange conflation of “sovereignty” and “marketing” wouldn’ t exist, if super-users & users didn’t  have such a death-grasp (i.e. the “OMG!, OMG!?!” sort of wig-outs) on the service in the first place.

        1. You can’t, in good faith, complain about BART or RIM with with the description you provide.

          Of course I can. BART is a government agency, and government agencies are not private organizations. They have significant constraints on their ability to restrict speech. They are not unable to do so, of course, but (as they discovered) they do not have the same degree of freedom that a private organization does.

          RIM is a common carrier (as constituted under US law; I don’t pretend to give a global view). We can perfectly well complain against them, say, filtering out text messages that include the word “riot,” because they give up the ability to do content filtering in exchange for legal protection against claims that their service is being used to nefarious ends.

          Saying “So what mix is the internet?” is a misleading question, because it depends on what you mean by “the Internet.” Do you mean the main backbone long-haul links? They have one set of rules. Do you mean Facebook? It has a different set of rules.

          Beschizza’s point, which I agree with, is that services like Facebook and Google+ are trying to have it both ways: They are presenting themselves as passive conduits that you can trust to facilitate any kind of interpersonal interaction you wish… right up until that threatens their commercial interests, at which point the bouncer’s hand lands on your shoulder.

          (And I have absolutely no idea what “meme” means as a verb.)

          1. To me it seems like you are just dodging the question by claiming that that my question is misleading. You are right that I am begging the question as to “what the internet is.” All these arguments are about that question.

             I think that you are afraid of answering that question directly, even if you already have given us a great functional definition already.  You seem scared of how that functional view might conflict with your ideas about online “speech”

            Drawing from the way you functionally describe the web, “speech” online is forced through an editors filter. And indeed you are deriding this right to edit/publish when you attack RIM. So in essence you are attacking the use of an “editor” by RIM, yet your own functional view implicitly grants that right as the company is simply regulating the usage of its own private property.

            You are arguing that RIM can’t exercise these rights over its private property, because it is in the public interest for it not to do so. And as such we are back to my original question.  Where is the tradeoff between public and private?

            I think you are just being dense, and aren’t willing to open your mind to an inquiry of thought; however, it seems others have at least done so without taking offense at my very asking. So either accept my question, or at the very least stop pestering me about it, as others here have moved on with it.

        2. I think that you are afraid of answering that question directly, even if you already have given us a great functional definition already.

          I’m afraid of answering the question that I answered. Wow, I overcame my fear! Go me!

          So either accept my question, or at the very least stop pestering me about it, as others here have moved on with it.

          You’re taking this rather personally, I’d say. If you don’t like my answer, coolness, but I really don’t quite see how replying to comments directed to me in a public forum is “pestering” you.

          You can define the question and debate in whatever way you choose, but that creates no obligation on anyone else to accept your formulation.

          And I have no clue where I “attacked” RIM; I was using them as an example of a common carrier. Common carriers accept a particular kind of tradeoff: In exchange for restrictions on their ability to control the speech that flows through their systems, they gain protection against legal claims against them for allowing potentially illegal speech.

          The point I am trying to make is that just saying “what is the Internet?” obscures rather than illuminates, because “the Internet” is not a monolithic thing. It has a variety of components, and those components operate under different rules.

          1. The point I am trying to make is that just saying “what is the Internet?” obscures rather than illuminates, because “the Internet” is not a monolithic thing.

            And I have repeatedly tried to remind you that your politics in regards to RIM the internet etc. are monolithic.

            I have been trying to explain to you that such monolithic politics don’t align with your complex view of the internet. That’s it.

            Why exactly did you lay into me so much if that’s all you had? It would have been easier for you to just let it go and not worry about engageing a quesion you have gone to such great lengths to call “misleading”

            Why did you even engage me in the first place? How is that even possible?? A question by nature is open-ended! And if you didn’t want to answer then you could have simple ignored it. Why did you engage with a line of inquiry that you had no intention of following?

            You’ve utterly confused me… 

            So “what is the internet?” isn’t a fair question? Wow, thats about all I can say. Wow. Thats got to be an all time low. Such a simple question.

            I hate to break it to you but you are shutting down a question and as such you’re the one being Dogmatic here. This seems to be at odds with your high minded rhetoric in regards to the internet. Questions are bad now? Rather this is all a reminder,  your politics are monolithic, as you find the simplest of questions threatening somehow.  

  2. I think the question should not regarding how Google decides to define itself. It is rather the function that should determine whether or not an entity is performing a public function or a quasi-public function wherein all individual protections and rights under the Constitution become effective. Google has the ability to make or break businesses and individuals–as such, having such plenary powers concentrated onto the hands of one private entity is dangerous. Google is performing a quasi-public function and thus should be regulated as such.

  3. I agree with you and I think the original post was pointing out that Google wants it both ways. It wants us inhabitants to think those warm fuzzy thoughts that come with the notion of a public space (safe, democratic, etc), but it also wants to stay unregulated and it wants to run its space as it sees fit.

    One quibble though: like Google’s action (other gestures are offensive in other places), the idea that it’s the US Constitution that comes into play in a public space is US centric.

  4. There’s a quote from North Dallas Forty (the best football movie ever, IMHO) which I will remix for this context: “Everytime I call it a public space, you call it a private service. And everytime I call it a private service, you call it a public space.”

  5. Sometimes an open-air courtyard area in a city that people walk through freely, is private property.  This is because property owners dedicate part of their land, such as sidewalks, for “public right-of-way.”  I wonder how this principle could or should apply on the internet.

  6. Zuccotti Park is privately owned but it functions as a public space. Google is trying to do the same thing, but they want to prevent an Occupy Wall Street through filtering the people allowed there. With the corporate crack-down on occupy camps, I’m not sure there is truly a public space left in America. Big Brother is always watching, even if you are in a public space.

  7. “In fact, almost all malls are entirely private settings …”
    Not necessarily.   California, and six other states, have affirmative free speech in private settings such as a shopping mall.   Check out Pruneyard v Robins (SCOTUS, 1980) for the reasoning, which basically says the the US constitution cannot require a mall to allow free speech, but some state consitutions can.     
    I haven’t seen any analysis of how Pruneyard’s state vs federal rules would play out in the virtual world of the internet, but it’s probably will be decided at some point.    

  8. Tom Anderson on Google+: “Google will fail unless they allow users to modify their profile page with dozens of auto-playing music videos, animated GIF backgrounds, and they make me everyone’s default friend.”

  9. Tom Anderson doesn’t really get the difference between public and public accommodation.  Public generally means publicly owned, or at least dedicated to the public.  Places of public accommodation are open to the public, but are privately owned and controlled.  So a mall (or a store, restaurant, hotel, etc.)  is privately owned, but open to the public because they are soliciting business from the public.   They can ban speech (in most cases someone pointed out the CA law on malls above), but they can’t discriminate under the Civil Rights Act.

    There’s also a difference between “Being in public” and something being public.   Being in public is defined by what it’s not – you can’t expect privacy.  Your front lawn is privately owned, but if you have a conversation there and anyone walking by on a sidewalk can overhear that conversation, you can’t expect privacy.  So you are “in public”, even though you’re on private property.  Alternatively, if you’re in a bathroom stall in a public building, you expect to not be photographed, etc., because we, as a society expect some privacy there.  So you’re not completely “In public” even though you’re in a public building.

    So, to be in public, to be public, and to be open to the public, are different things.  And I think he means G+ is open to the public.

  10. A public school yard is public, but it is not unreasonable or “censorship” to have some loud mouth ass spouting profanity moved down the street where he can continue his profanities out of ear shot of the children,

    This is basically what happened to Sieglers’ profanities .. they are still on G+, still in his G+ posts, still in his G+ photo stream .. he was not censored, he was “asked” to move his profanity off the school yard where the kids are located (G+ public profile that shows up in regular google searches and bypasses the safe search feature) and out of ear shot (anywhere else on G+) where the kids can’t over hear his boorish and childish nonsense.

    1. I agree, that symbol is pretty much universally recognised as standing for ‘f*ck you’. In a profile picture, it would be accessible to anyone without any filtering and without any context. Even if MG Siegler was trying to be clever or whatever, he should remember that the internet is a place where people don’t get that kind of humour (as seen in the repeated failure of many people to spot obvious irony or sarcasm, for instance). Of course, it’s obvious from his main profile page that Siegler was just trying to be cute, he just happened to be caught out by a filter designed to remove offensive images. Which his was by definition.

  11. My personal opinion and that you are confusing topic with terms precise, I do not understand the comparison between the public and google + google + and a tool suite that allows you to publish publicly your “link” your opinions, and lets you to connect with peopleof your interest, discussion and “wrong” because a person can choose whether or not to use google + I + I think that google will be a great success, but gradually over time 
    Here’s how Google + Win competition, including Facebook!
    Google + will be successful because no one can offer as a tailor and sharing tools so powerful, and in the future I’m sure there will be thousands of applications that will cause anyone to linger in google +

  12. I say “public” you say “well… it’s open to the public, but I can’t shout homophobic things!” and I’m all like “yeah, like at the mall…. which is still public….” and you’re all like “no no no no no no when I say public I mean a space where I can shout homophobic rhetoric at people” and I’m all like “but you can’t do that ‘in public’, that would be threatening and you could be arrested for doing it on the street corner” and you’re all like “I’m moving to Somalia!” … it’s all really just semantics.

  13. I think the precedent for this privately owned “public” space is newspapers, which have for centuries tried to straddle that line. When we say the New York Times or Chicago Tribune are the “paper of record” for the regions they serve, we are assigning to them a very public role, one that they themselves have embraced. It is because of this public role held by a private organization that a strict (if not always strictly adhered to) ethical code was developed, and why a special right to freedom of the press was carved out the constitution of the United States and other countries.

    If social networks want to make a claim to a public role, they need to establish a well defined code of ethics with a broad consensus to regulate themselves, in the same way that the private press, private education, and private healthcare have defined their own rules. 

    Failure to do so is an invitation for government regulation. Considering that most legislators have no clue regarding technology, I’d rather not see that happen. But if Google, Facebook, Twitter, etc. fill a public role as private organizations and fail to regulate themselves, then they ought to be regulated as utilities are, another example of (usually) private companies providing a public service. 

Comments are closed.