Rick Santorum wants his Google problem fixed. Can Google shrug him off?

Google says the years-old problem Rick Santorum has had is not theirs to fix. But questions remain: Who is responsible for online reputations? And is Google a company or a public utility?

By , Staff writer

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    Republican presidential candidate and former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum, left, waves to a member of the audience as former House Speaker Newt Gingrich looks on, prior to a debate Thursday, Sept. 22, in Orlando, Fla.
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Rick Santorum has had a Google problem for years, but now the Republican presidential hopeful wants the company to fix it.

The problem began in 2003. After the then-US senator from Pennsylvania said he was opposed to “homosexual acts,” a gay rights activist figured out how to drive top search results for the politician’s name to graphic, homosexual material.

Now, as the race for the GOP nomination heats up – with yet another debate Thursday night – the former governor is renewing his appeal to Google to filter its search results.

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“I suspect if something was up there like that about Joe Biden, they’d get rid of it,” he told Politico on Tuesday.

But Google, the largest Internet search engine with some 70 percent of online search results, maintains that this is not the company’s problem.

“Google’s search results are a reflection of the content and information that is available on the Web,” says spokesman Gabriel Stricker via email. Users who want content removed from the Internet should contact the webmaster of the page directly, he suggests, adding that once the webmaster takes the page down from the Web, “it will be removed from Google’s search results through our usual crawling process."

“We do not remove content from our search results,” he says, “except in very limited cases such as illegal content and violations of our webmaster guidelines.”

This tussle between the aspiring nominee and the Internet behemoth sheds a spotlight, say media and political analysts, on such unresolved digital-era issues as who has the right to control an online reputation and what responsibility comes with Google’s massive profile.

Both sides in this dustup have more than a soupçon of disingenuousness, says Michal Ann Strahilevitz, a professor of marketing at Golden Gate University in San Francisco.

“If you want to be president, people are going to say all kinds of things about you, nasty, untrue, mean and downright awful sometimes,” she says, “that just comes with the territory.”

More important, she says, Rick Santorum is not trailing in the polls because of some unsavory online materials. “He could get all of this removed and he would still be way behind the other candidates,” she adds.

But the ability to smear a public figure on such a broad platform troubles Nicholas Johnson, a former FCC commissioner and now professor of law at the University of Iowa.

“This is yet another example of the growing lack of civility in our civil discourse that ranges from the offensive to the mean-spirited and even dangerous,” he says.

Not everyone can handle the kind of nastiness that the anonymity of the Internet permits, he says, pointing for instance to a teen suicide caused by Internet bullying. But free speech is protected by the First Amendment, he notes, “and this falls into that category.”

However, Google’s growing influence has led many to suggest that new rules apply. “I have come to regard Google as more of a public utility,” says Matthew Crenson, professor emeritus in political science at Johns Hopkins University.

The search engine is so dominant, he notes, adding, “It is no longer the upstart, private little company trying to compete.” Rather, he says, it is the market standard, “almost a monopoly, and a public utility has to meet certain minimum standards.” Radio and television stations have limits on the material they can air, he notes, adding, “or they can have their licenses revoked.”

This push for accountability flies directly in the face of those who want the Internet to remain free and open, he notes, but suggests there are many other methods from the Wikipedia model of peer-editing of content to government subsidies to encourage more competition in the Web search industry.

A more balanced approach to such a dominant player makes sense, says Mark Tatge, a professor of journalism at DePauw University in Indiana.

“Google has gotten too big,” he says, “the playing field needs to be leveled in some way.”

Public figures need to have thick skins, he says, adding, “I have no sympathy for politicians crying over what people say about them.”

But, he notes, “we know that Google’s business model is based on selling advertising, it is not some big nonprofit,” so, he asks, how does letting it get this big with no accountability benefit everyone? “There has to be some happy medium,” he adds.

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