Very silently — and very temporarily — this week Google appeared to have chosen a side in the gun control debate in the wake of the recent school shooting in Florida that left 17 people dead. Disappointingly, that stance involved censorship of what shoppers using the corporation’s search engine could find online.
On Tuesday morning, people shopping via Google began to notice that any search items related to the word “gun” or the category of firearms in general were coming back with zero results. If you were in the market for a glue gun or a nail gun or any other such product, you were simply out of luck.
But it went even further than that. Any shopping search at all that contained the letter string of G, U, and N would come back with nothing. Looking to purchase a box set of the TV show “Laguna Beach: The Real Orange County?” Sorry. Trying to find that perfect burgundy rug for the living room? Not today.
In fact, Google’s algorithm restrictions went beyond the term “gun” and prohibited shoppers from finding seemingly any item that could be — however tangentially — connected to firearms. If you were searching for auto parts for your Dodge Colt, for example, Google was no help. Need some more razors from Remington? Better look elsewhere.
As demonstrated by YouTuber Douglas Stewart, these restrictions only applied to people using Google’s “Shopping” tab. All the words and phrases previously mentioned, as well as the countless others that weren’t, came back with standard results when searchers keyed them under the “All” tab.
It didn’t take long for people to notice what was happening, and many began highlighting the situation on social media. Equally quickly, Google caught on that people had caught on. By late Tuesday, as the Washington Examiner pointed out, shopping via Google had returned to its previous experience.
Many things are troubling here, not the least of which is the idea that the world’s most-used search engine would try to control what people can purchase online. Just as worrisome, however, is the fact that Google made this move in silence. No announcement of the change, no statement on the retraction.
At a time when critically important debates are taking place on the complex issue of gun violence, it should be alarming to everyone — regardless of your stance on the topic — that such an attempt at censorship was made.