July 1, 2008

Was Google tricked into shutting down anti-Obama bloggers?

That's what the anti-Obama bloggers have charged — and in so charging, drawn immense attention to themselves and furthered their anti-Obama cause.
On Monday, Google would not explicitly rebut the idea that it had been tricked but said that the cause of the temporary blockage appeared to be elsewhere. “It appears that our anti-spam filters caused some Blogger accounts to be blocked from creating new posts,” Google spokesman Adam Kovacevich said in a statement. “While we are still investigating, we believe this may have been caused by mass spam e-mails mentioning the ‘Just Say No Deal’ network of blogs, which in turn caused our system to classify the blog addresses mentioned in the e-mails as spam. We have restored posting rights to the affected blogs, and it is very important to us that Blogger remain a tool for political debate and free expression.”

Mr. Kovacevich would not give further details about Google’s spam monitoring techniques or their relationship to the Blogger service.
Of course, Google can't disclose its methodology. It would tip spammers off. New techniques would be needed. But Kovacevich — unless he's lying — revealed something about the technique. Google monitors email. (Sidenote: You might want to worry about how Google monitors email.) Was there a big mass emailing listing the anti-Obama bloggers that resembled the kind of email that points people to spam blogs? If so, they were crossing into or close to the territory of spamming.

Now, last May, Google saw my blog as a possible spam blog:
Blogger's spam-prevention robots have detected that your blog has characteristics of a spam blog. (What's a spam blog?) Since you're an actual person reading this, your blog is probably not a spam blog. Automated spam detection is inherently fuzzy, and we sincerely apologize for this false positive.
I read its information about why this had happened:
If you make a large number of posts in a single day, you will be required to complete a word verification for each one, independent of whether your blog has been cleared as a potential spam or not. If this happens to you, simply complete the word verification for each post, or wait 24 hours, at which point it will be removed automatically.
So my frequent posting looked spammy to robots. I had to deal with that by doing word verification, which was annoying. If I had actually been barred from posting, it would have really upset me. I don't understand why the anti-Obama bloggers got more than just word verification. Perhaps it is because a mass-emailing with a set of linked blogs is stronger evidence of spam than just posting a lot.

If it is the case that a mass-emailing with a set of links gets the linked blogs blocked, then political opponents do have a way to get Google to censor blogs they hate. They'd have to fake advertise the blogs to do that, and they'd have to be spam emailers too, but it's a little disturbing to know there is that path of attack.

Google needs to make a special effort to protect the political blogs and to let us Blogspot bloggers know it will vigorously protect us. I'm not going to be one of those people who try to punish Blogger by leaving in a huff. I'm too stubborn, and I enjoy being part of the vast Google empire that is taking over the world.

But maybe Google wants us to see Blogger as a place to blog small-time or to get started and expects people like me to break away.

Talk to me, Google! Is that what you think? I'm stubborn, but I don't stay where I'm not wanted.

30 comments:

Bob said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Bob said...

Google is planning to change its corporate slogan to Don't Be Overly Evil or perhaps Don't Be Evil Unless It Helps Obama.

The Drill SGT said...

I may be paranoid, but I read this comment by them as implying they search content of emails on their system. For frame of reference, law enforcement can get info on the addresses "sent" and "to" without a search warrant, but content is protected. This is analogous to the police getting local phone records after a crime has been committed. Traffic analysis, not content analysis is what the FBI does.

Google seems to do content analysis of your emails, and takes actions based on it:

mass spam e-mails mentioning the ‘Just Say No Deal’ network of blogs,

MadisonMan said...

Where would I be without my spam filter?!

If you are worried about people reading the content of your email, encrypt it. It's not hard to do.

Zeb Quinn said...

Google's track record of assisting China clamp down on Chinese dissident ideation showed me what Google is capable of doing and what it was willing to do with its algorithms. When you think about it that way, anything is possible with them.

SteveR said...

Google is great.
I love Google.
I appreciate what they do.
I love word verification.
Feel free to read my email and to reply to all thoses messages from my sister while you are at it.
You can have my bank account #, credit card #s and SSN. you are deserving of my trust.

Simon said...

It's one thing for an individual blog - even this one - to be misidentified as a spam blog. False positives happen. But it stretches credulity to be asked to believe Kovacevich's claim that their “anti-spam filters caused some Blogger accounts to be blocked from creating new posts” (emphasis added) if those some blogs were all (or even mostly) critical of the Democratic Party's nominee. Perhaps that's just prejudice on my part -- it seems obvious to me what result most of Google's employees are pulling for in the fall.

Thorley Winston said...

I'm fine with requiring a word verification to post comments but what I find annoying is when the word is illegible because of background images and you have to start over each time.

Pogo said...

"The First Solidarity Hymn was sung.

"Google, we are twelve; oh, make us one,
Like drops within the Social River,
Oh, make us now together run
As swiftly as thy changing masthead."

Twelve yearning stanzas. And then the loving cup was passed a second time. "I drink to the Greater Google" was now the formula. All drank. Tirelessly the music played. The drums beat. The crying and clashing of the harmonies were an obsession in the melted bowels. The Second Solidarity Hymn was sung.

"Come, Greater Google, Social Friend,
Annihilating blogs against the One!
We long to die, for when we end,
Our larger life has but begun."


Aldous Googley

rightwingprof said...

Well, I don't think they implied that they read email. Gmail has a spam filter, and the filter has to scan all messages that come in, or it wouldn't work. If the spam filter identifies a particular phrase or addy as spam, it's going to do so system-wide, and not just on one individual account. I'd gladly bash Google, but I don't think there is anything here.

PatCA said...

"Of course, Google can't disclose its methodology. It would tip spammers off."

Of course, the NYT will not respect their weasely reasoning and will reveal all Google's secrets shortly.

Waiting...

bearbee said...

I was curious about this.

Blogger was created by
Pyra Labs which was bought out by Google in 2003.

After the buyout 2 or 3 of the Pyra founders left Google. The remaining is a small team operating Blogger within the Google structure.

Were they operating independent of Google policy?

m00se said...

If you bother to read Google's EULA and privacy statements, they reserve the right to search your information (basically, anything on their servers in any shape or form) for nebulous research purposes.

Google is doing harm, as much as any other search or services provider. People just turn a blind eye to it.

Again, never ever post or email anything you don't want the whole world to read.

Chris Wren said...

I had a similar experience with a blog that wasn't about politics, but art and technology. I switched to Wordpress the same day and haven't looked back. Is Wordpress "better" than blogger? They're about the same really, with the edge to Wordpress in my opinion. But the important thing is, they're not owned by Google. Maybe me switching my tiny little obscure blog doesn't make much of a point, but it's something, anyway.

Simon said...

m00se said...
"If you bother to read Google's EULA and privacy statements, they reserve the right to search your information (basically, anything on their servers in any shape or form) for nebulous research purposes. Google is doing harm, as much as any other search or services provider. People just turn a blind eye to it."

Isn't your use of "harm" here as "nebulous" as Google's "research purposes"? What is the particular "harm" that Google is doing, in your view? (Which isn't to say anything about whether I think that they are or not, of course.)

Joe said...

One of the interesting things about computer networks is how vulnerable they are to modification and/or damage by a single inside person. Unfortunately, far too many companies have very loose guidelines and enforcement of changes to core servers. Add to that corporate cultures which pride themselves more on how people feel than on performance and its amazing stuff like this doesn't happen more often.

m00se said...

Simon:

Substitute "FISA" for "Google" in your statement.

Any issues with that?

P. Rich said...

Althouse: You might want to give some thought to removing the "Flag Blog" from the top of your blog page. I understand removal is possible, and apparently that flag was the cause of the blog shutdowns - at least according to several of the blogs.

I don't know if this point was made in the Times article. I can't bring myself to link to the NYT. That amounts to financial support, and your frequent references amount to promotion. (Visitors here should keep this in mind.)

halojones-fan said...

"flag blog" as the cause of the shutdown is only speculation.

I'm wondering if it might not have had something to do with AdWords. They've caused some epic screw-ups before. An AdWord suddenly gets identified as a spam trap, and then everything with that AdWord on it gets bumped into the spam folder...

I also know that Google will automatically lock blogs that get spam comments. Posting a comment that's just a link to a porn site, e.g., will cause Google to automatically lock the blog unless the comment is quickly deleted.

I must say, the idea that I can get blogs flagged by putting their names into spam gives me a wonderful Grinchy idea...

Scrutineer said...

The problem (assuming it's the same one) doesn't affect just Blogspot blogs. Google search results for PrestoPundit that used to point directly to his blog have all vanished.

The Drill SGT said...

Zeb Quinn said...
Google's track record of assisting China clamp down on Chinese dissident ideation showed me what Google is capable of doing and what it was willing to do with its algorithms. When you think about it that way, anything is possible with them.


They help the Chinese root out dissidents but refused to help NSA find terrorists.

from a May 08 CNET article:

Google is now the first of the major search engines and e-mail providers to make a firm statement on the issue of the National Security Agency's wholesale surveillance of Internet content.

Google has stated it didn't help the NSA search your e-mails. More specifically the company denies participating in the NSA's Terrorist Surveillance Program.


Chinese Good / USA Bad

and don't get me started on google holiday iconography

Simon said...

m00se said...
"Simon: Substitute 'FISA' for 'Google' in your statement. Any issues with that?"

"Isn't your use of 'harm' here as nebulous as FISA's research purposes" doesn't make much sense. And "[w]hat is the particular 'harm' that FISA is doing, in your view" doesn't advance the ball either - it just poses an ancilary question while doing nothing to resolve the primary question (what is the harm that FISA is doing, in your view?).

At a very abstract level I infer that your concern is "privacy" - a concept only three fifths as nebulous as "harm." But government and private sector are apples and oranges. There is a great deal of information we willingly hand over to the private sector without any concern that we would balk at handing over to government. In my capacity as an email server admin, fifteen thousand people routinely consent to my seeing (or at least, being able to see) a detailed picture of who they email and how often. That's an inescapable incident of using email. But I fancy that many of those people would be unable to give the government the same information. As I see it, that was the crux of the controversy over the warrantless data mining program. It wasn't that the telcos had this information that people objected to, it was the government's getting it that worried people.

The same analysis applies to all sorts of private activity, but two more examples will suffice. Credit card companies, almost of necessity, build up a detailed record of what you have bought and where, and if you carry a cell phone, your provider can track your location quite precisely as your phone registers with various towers. Most citizens happily understand and accept giving this information to private companies, but would be horrified at the idea of providing that sort of detailed record to government. And it's government itself that people have a problem with, I think, not the concentration of information that attends government collection; if you had a conglomerate that provided both cell phone service and a credit card, the combination of this location and activity data in one set of hands would not trouble customers. At an instinctive level, most Americans understand that government is not to be trusted. That is a healthy trait, albeit one that has been under assault from the left for nearly a century and that is finally threatening to give way as the nation collectively bawls "mommy! I hurt myself!" over healthcare.

P. Rich said...

halojones-fan said: "flag blog" as the cause of the shutdown is only speculation.

Everything regarding cause is speculation at this point and will likely remain so, even if Google does provide an "explanation".

m00se said...

As a person that designs and implements large email systems, I find our statement a bit worrying.

First of all, all modern and well designed email systems shield the user's email by default. At no time should the email admin have access to or "read" users email in the course of normal operations.

In the event of an emergency, the user's email is subject to auditing, particularly when legally mandated. However, you yourself should not be able to make that decision.

The same goes for any other systems which might hold users content they would wish to be private. If a user wishes his/her content to be public, then you by default remove the notion of privacy. However, if you hold your information to be private, entrusted to an entity, then that data should not be accessible by admins or for that matter "researchers".

Google and the Government could have the same intentions for your data, and you have to "trust" them to handle it in a legal, respectful and diligent matter.

I can, however, vote people out of office that support things like FISA, and I can choose to not use Google for that reason as well.

I think that I have more information regarding how my government handles my data than how Google would, should I choose to trust them with it.

Simon said...

Moose,
I didn't say that I can "'read' users email in the course of normal operations," I said that I can build "a detailed picture of who they email and how often." The server logs provide a timestamped record - as any good mail server suite should log - the sending IP address, user ID and recipient of every mail sent in any direction through the system. I could, albeit with difficulty, access all customer email in transit if I was so inclined (or, as you point out, if required to do so by warrant - CALEA, for example, imposes certain requirements on service providers), but for what purpose? I'm sure there are criminal goals that could be leveraged, but if your admin is a criminal (or, for that matter, so bored as to have time and/or interest in reading user email), you have bigger problems than her access to server logs.

"However, if you hold your information to be private, entrusted to an entity, then that data should not be accessible by admins or for that matter 'researchers'"

I don't know, but have little doubt, that if you read the fine print of your agreement with Google, you have agreed to allow Google and their assignees to do anything they lke with any data of any kind that you put on or move through their servers for any period of time whatsoever.

"I can, however, vote people out of office that support things like FISA, and I can choose to not use Google for that reason as well."

That comparison is, in the proper sense of the term, specious. You, as an individual, can choose not to use Google if you have privacy concerns. But you as an individual cannot vote out of office a President who has done things you don't approve of (still less, a legislator who has supported things you don't approve of). You can vote against a President. You can vote against a legislator, if you happen to live in their district (hence the paranthetical in the previous sentence: there are any number of bills that may pass on the votes of legislators you can't vote for over the objections of the ones that you can). But you have no direct personal control turning only on your own choices, in direct contrast to your ex proprio motu relationship with any private entity.

In many ways, that's the taproot of the government / private sector distinction: you as an individual can do nothing vis-a-vis government without the assent of the community, and cannot stop something that has such assent. That is one of the primary reasons why the sphere in which government can legitimately and legally act must be tightly limited to only those functions that are irreducibly and clearly needful of direct governmental administration.

Also, this is kind of beside the point but it's worth pausing on: I think your use of terminology is too loose. You don't support FISA? Do you mean you don't support warrantless wiretapping? If so, you very much want people in office who support FISA, because FISA is designed precisely to stop warrantless wiretapping. Or are you an advocate of the robust executive, opposed to FISA because you believe that it infringes on the President's inherent power of surveillance? If so, what do you do with Little v. Barreme, 2 Cranch (6 U.S.) 170 (1804), see Shane & Bruff, The Law of Presidential Power 42-3 (1988)? Dicta in that case has long seemed to me to suggest that in addition to the holding (Congress can prescribe processes that the executive must follow in executing the statute to the exclusion of Presidential discretion, 6 U.S. at 177-8) that the original meaning of Article II would allow Congress to prescribe processes by which the President might have inherent Article II power to act. Id. at 177. If that's correct, suddenly Justice Jackson's Youngstown framework snaps into very sharp focus, from my point of view.

blake said...

Google seems to do content analysis of your emails, and takes actions based on it:

Well, yeah. That's not a secret.

And as the link points out, almost all e-mail services scan your mail to provide spam filtering. Google does it to provide spam filtering and also to provide targeted ads.

A follow-up comment from Trooper York's blog the other day got me a mess of lingerie ads, e.g.

All Google is doing is combining their e-mail spam filtering with their blog spam filtering. It's probably pretty effective most of the time.

blake said...

I mean...Gmail is free and has nigh unlimited e-mail capacity. How do you think Google justifies that?

Eli Blake said...

Most web-hosting sites charge for their services. Blogger is free. I've had my problems with it before, but frankly for a free service, I think its a heckuva good 'un.

Pal2Pal said...

I would be moving my blog to Typepad or get my own domain and run WordPress or one of the other great platforms out there. Who needs Big Brother? I use Expression Engine, but my server (Blue Host $6.95 mo.) offers WP for free download.

Of course, I stick to Dogpile for my searches and don't depend on Google exclusively anyway.

Stephen said...

Google needs to take responsibility for censoring these blogs by publicly apologizing and pledge to never censor content again...force them to change or else we will blog on non-Google platforms: https://www.thepoint.com/campaigns/stop-google-censorship