COMMENTARY ON LAW AND TECHNOLOGY

Google and Censoring of Search Results

16-Oct-2018

In recent news, President Trump has accused Google of rigging search results. The President claims that the search engine giant has purposefully suppressed positive stories about his administration, and could be opened to prosecution as a result.

While the President’s specific claims of political censoring are unsubstantiated, the President has touched on an underlying issue; how do we know what we search and what we see on the internet represents the objective truth? How do websites rank and show information in a fair way?

In the case of Google, Google searches makes up 92 percent of all internet searches. Despite their popularity, the search engine has never published how its search algorithm works. What is the “it” factor that pushes a Wikipedia page or a New York Times article near the top of a search, while keeping a quote“untrustworthy” source near the bottom? These “secret algorithms” are prevalent throughout search engines and social media; popular sites like Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter all rely on these algorithms to determine what content to show users.

For example, in July of this year, Twitter algorithms limited the visibility of some Republicans in profile searches. Testifying before Congress, Twitter’s CEO, Jack Dorsey said the site tried to enforce policies against “threats, hate, harassment or other forms of abusive speech”, and that the tweaking of their algorithm unintentionally excluded republican profiles. Twitter has since fixed their search algorithm.

What we know about these secret algorithms isn’t much. For sure the algorithm looks for sites that use the same kind of words that people are searching for. But they also try and ensure that the pages writing those words are legitimate, by looking at information such as whether the site is trustworthy and if it is using the latest and most secure technology. There’s also an element of personalization affecting site rankings, where users will see more stories from publishers that they’ve visited frequently in the past.

For Google, their decision to keep the algorithm secret is partly an attempt to ensure that it still works. If the nuts and bolts behind Google’s rankings were revealed, companies would try to alter their content in order to maximize their rank.

Regardless, because of the entire industry’s lack of transparency, it is easy to think that the search results we receive every day could be inherently biased. If Google or Facebook ever went rogue and decided to throw an election to a favored candidate, it would only have to alter a small fraction of search results to do so.And that is a very scary proposition.

So how do we fix such an issue?

Frank Pasquale, a professor at the University of Maryland Law School, has suggested that the Federal Trade Commission and the Federal Communications Commission should gain access to search data and investigate claims of manipulation. His hope is that a nonpartisan body could investigate accusations of bias and put the issue to rest.

Conversely, Facebook has sketched out a plan that involves giving academic researchers access to its search data, and allowing these academic researchers to study whether bias exists. Under Facebook’s proposed solution, the tech company would keep a tighter lid on its secret algorithm, while still allowing some review to come out to the public.

However, recently it was revealed that the Trump administration is considering instructing federal antitrust and law enforcement agencies to open investigations into the practices of sites like Google and Facebook. While the preliminary document is still in the early stages of drafting, and could change significantly in the coming months, the threat of federal antitrust enforcement from the Trump administration could spur tech companies to introduce more transparent policies regarding their search algorithms.

It’s still an open question how these tech companies will deal with these developments. It will take months for the Trump Administration’s proposal to take shape, if it does at all, and other proposals are only still preliminary thoughts. Stay tuned for more developments on this front, and let’s hope that these developments aren’t blocked.

I’m Jay Kesan.