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Is Google Censoring Users Too Heavily?

Now that the chosen few have had time to play around for Google Glass for a bit, many are noticing some unexpected restrictions. Specifically, the voice-to-text system, which is the primary way to int...
Is Google Censoring Users Too Heavily?
Written by Chris Crum
  • Now that the chosen few have had time to play around for Google Glass for a bit, many are noticing some unexpected restrictions. Specifically, the voice-to-text system, which is the primary way to interact with the device, does not accept swearing.

    In other words, Google Glass will not let you say whatever you want, and if this is really the future of how we interact with the Internet on a daily basis, that could be a problem.

    Should Google be dictating what people can and cannot say? Let us know what you think in the comments.

    On the surface, this may not seem like a huge deal. Right now, only a few people even have the device, and there’s no telling if it will even be successful or simply just something we’ll all be laughing back at a few years from now. Either way, this is a Google product, and Google is how an incredibly large number of people retrieve information and communicate with others.

    This isn’t the first time we’ve seen Google get a little stricter on what is acceptable behavior from its users in recent memory. Late last year, Google stopped letting users disable SafeSearch in the US, making some queries less relevant as a result. Users were outraged, as shown by the comments we received on our coverage of the story. Earlier this year, we confirmed with Google that the changes had rolled out to more countries.

    Essentially, Google took away the filter that gave users more control over what they would see. That adult content is still out there, but Google made it harder to find, making users get more descriptive with their keywords.

    Here’s what they said about it: “We are not censoring any adult content, and want to show users exactly what they are looking for — but we aim not to show sexually-explicit results unless a user is specifically searching for them. We use algorithms to select the most relevant results for a given query. If you’re looking for adult content, you can find it without having to change the default setting — you just may need to be more explicit in your query if your search terms are potentially ambiguous. The image search settings work the same way as in web search.”

    Adult content is one thing. Now, they’re simply censoring speech. Given that users won’t be typing on Google Glass, they’re making it a great deal harder to say the words you actually want to say, whether you’re searching or trying to have a conversation with a friend.

    As (who first reported on this) pointed out, this is also the case for Google’s voice feature on Android. In fact, it’s the same for the desktop voice search experience. Have you tried to voice search a dirty word from your computer lately? It looks something like this:


    But it’s probably more likely that you would just type your query from your PC. On a smartphone, tablet or desktop computer, users can simply type what they actually want to say. Why does Google let you type it, but feel the need to censor it when you say it out loud? What’s the point? I’m sure you can imagine the outrage if Google started censoring what you type. What’s the difference? For a device like Glass, which relies on speech (as would a possibly forthcoming smart watch, I would imagine), the default experience is censored.

    One interesting angle to all of this is that Google is starting to draw criticism for having a “puritanical” approach to users, similar to that of Apple’s App Store, though you can still find plenty of adult-themed apps in Google Play.

    There’s no real consistency to Google’s censorship practices. It will be interesting to see if things change significantly in Google Play.

    I have to wonder if Microsoft is busy crafting its next “Scroogled” campaign. As we’ve seen, Bing sometimes goes out of its way to suggest particularly objectionable content (though it looks like they’ve cleaned up things a bit since the linked report was written).

    We’ve reached out to Google for comment on its voice censoring, and so far have not received a response.

    By the way, taking pictures in the shower with Google Glass is apparently okay.

    Is Google right to censor speech with its voice-to-text input? Would you be okay if they did the same thing with just text input? Is the fact that they don’t do this with text input a double standard? Share your thoughts in the comments.

    Lead image: Google co-founder Sergey Brin wearing Google Glass on the subway.

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