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Tech Giant Google Finds Itself In Another Free-Speech Controversy


I want to go very quickly now to Aarti Shahani, NPR's tech reporter. Aarti, why is this story involving Barry Lynn hitting such a nerve?

AARTI SHAHANI, BYLINE: Yeah. You know, I think it's hitting a nerve because Google has a novel form of power over both the distribution of ideas and the creation of ideas, right? Like, we've seen big corporations influence research. That's nothing new. It happens with oil and gas. It happens with pharmaceuticals.

You know, what's new is big tech - right? - making money by organizing the world's information through secret algorithms that we don't really understand. And then generating so much money from the ad revenue, they can pay to shape the thoughts and the content the rest of us are creating.

So it's like, you know, Google as well as others - you could say Facebook, too. It's like they're managing the pipes. And they're increasingly deciding what goes into the pipes. And the rest of us are just eating and drinking it up.

CHANG: And you could also say they're actually tossing out things in those pipes completely, like Facebook did in response to Charlottesville.

SHAHANI: That's exactly right. You know, after the Charlottesville protests, Facebook zapped away links to a white supremacist article. You know, whether or not you like the move, it does point to the fact if big tech wants to silence you, they can.

CHANG: So in the case of Barry Lynn and New America - I mean, Lynn, here, says he got kicked out because he wrote things Google did not like. Have there been other instances where it seems like Google is trying to influence the speech of another organization that gets money from the company?

SHAHANI: You know, what I've learned about is more self-censorship, OK? Yesterday, I called people whom I know get money from Google. I spoke with this one professor who was like, you know, there's an area of research I've thought about doing to look at the Communications Decency Act, which basically protects Google and other Internet companies from being liable for fake news and slander.

The professor's not touching it because professor gets money from Google.

CHANG: All right, that's NPR's Aarti Shahani. Thank you, Aarti.

SHAHANI: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF FREE THE ROBOT'S "JUPITER") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Aarti Shahani is a correspondent for NPR. Based in Silicon Valley, she covers the biggest companies on earth. She is also an author. Her first book, Here We Are: American Dreams, American Nightmares (out Oct. 1, 2019), is about the extreme ups and downs her family encountered as immigrants in the U.S. Before journalism, Shahani was a community organizer in her native New York City, helping prisoners and families facing deportation. Even if it looks like she keeps changing careers, she's always doing the same thing: telling stories that matter.