I was talking to two friends. We were searching for something online, and one of them commented that they got much better results when they were using "the american Google", strongly implying that Google was removing stuff for us here (in Sweden). I tried to say that, this not being China, Google is not censoring anything. We can find just the same stuff here as someone in the United states can. I tried to say that Google does filter and try to give the "best" results for you according to what they can tell about you, but they don't take anything away. I did not feel like I did a great job about this, and to tell the truth it is not as if I would swear Google is doing no evil. But I see no reason for them to try and do this active kind of censoring either.
The really interesting thought came a while later - as they so often do - while I was doing the dishes. It was this:
What practical difference does it make between someone filtering stuff out of my sight and the same someone outright censoring?
Google has the power to create a highly effective filter bubble around me. I very rarely stop to even consider this, let alone try to break out of it. When I do think about it, it usually ends with comforting myself that they try to improve search and a vague unfounded hope that they have nothing to gain by hiding things from me.
But they are hiding, even if it is stuff I would stand no chance finding if they were not around. And even if it is in the most benign way of just putting things in a certain order.
Now, I do believe that Google is about as driven by data as they claim to be, and that they would not start to censor my results just for the hell of it. And the filters, searches and sorts really do help me get useful signal out of a noise I would never get through without help. But it sure does not hurt to consider the layers being built all around us every once in a while. By always being there and so rarely considered, they may be the most effective thought control ever created. Even if the control they exercise is to insulate us more, that is a pretty darn large effect.
My friend Martin added two highly relevant links as comments over on Facebook: