It seems like everyone on both sides of the aisle is upset about Google search results.
Democrats ask Google to “limit the appearance” of anti-abortion clinic results. It would be good if people searching Google for information on abortion were presented with the most relevant and scientifically rigorous information, just as it would be good if Google results didn’t tell someone with a leg cramp that he might be dying of some rare disease. But for this to happen, tech company employees would have to be both perfect arbiters of the truth and also able to personally vet heaps and heaps of websites. Since that is impossible, we settle for a system where Google serves up an array of web links and lets individuals take from this content what they will.
This upsets some politicians, who think Google should be serving up only government-approved information. In the latest iteration of this phenomenon, 21 senators have sent a letter to Google CEO Sundar Pichai complaining that people who search for information about abortions may be led to websites for crisis pregnancy centers.
Crisis pregnancy centers exist to persuade people not to choose abortion. They may be run by religious organizations or by secular pro-life groups. They often draw people in by purporting to be neutral sources of information and support for people facing unexpected pregnancies, but their goal is to convince people to continue those pregnancies. Sometimes this is done through positive means, such as emotional support and material aid, and sometimes it is done through negative means, such as guilt trips and misleading information.
From a pro-choice perspective, there is much to criticize about crisis pregnancy centers. But while some have been found to misrepresent themselves in ways that amount to fraud, most operate within legal limits and have every right to exist, to advertise, and to try to persuade people. Looked at another way, they could even be lauded as representing a non-authoritarian way to promote pro-life views—standing in contrast to the much more drastic tactics of trying to shut down abortion clinics, bar access to abortion pills, and criminalize abortion doctors.
In any event, in a free society they must be able to advertise anywhere pro-choice advertising is permitted.
If Google decided to ban crisis pregnancy center advertisements, that would be one thing. I don’t think that would be a good idea, since I think we benefit when tech companies trying to remain relatively apolitical. But as a private company, Google is perfectly free to make that choice.
But whichever choice it makes, it should make it free of political pressure.
In their letter to Google, the senators—including Dianne Feinstein (D–Calif.), Bernie Sanders (I–Vt.), Elizabeth Warren (D–Mass.), and Amy Klobuchar (D–Minn.)—give the impression that all crisis pregnancy centers falsely represent themselves as abortion clinics. “We write today regarding disturbing new reports that Google has been directing users who search for abortion services towards anti-abortion ‘fake clinics,’ also known as ‘crisis pregnancy centers’ or ‘pregnancy resource centers,'” they state.
They call on Google to “limit the appearance of anti-abortion fake clinics or so-called ‘crisis pregnancy centers’ in Google search results, Google Ads, and on Google maps when users search for ‘abortion clinic,’ ‘abortion pill,’ or similar terms.” They ask that Google attach disclaimers to crisis pregnancy center websites that appear in search results.
But it’s inaccurate to suggest all crisis pregnancy centers are masquerading as abortion clinics. And those that are doing this in a way that runs afoul of the law should be dealt with by the legal system, not by federal lawmakers exerting censorial pressure on a private company.
The latter approach doesn’t just undermine free speech and free markets; it’s remarkably short-sighted as a political strategy. If senators pressure private companies into excluding speech that Democratic politicians don’t like while Democrats are in power, what do they think will happen when Republicans are in charge again?
The best way to counter bad information is to get people good information, not to strong-arm private actors into spreading only your preferred messages. A government powerful enough to bully tech companies into obscuring information about anti-abortion centers is also one powerful enough to bully tech companies into hiding info about how to obtain an abortion—and about a whole lot else.