Monday, February 4, 2013

Why is Bing calling me a "Google Criminal"?

It's always a good idea, from time to time, to search on your own name.  When I searched on my own name, here's what Bing suggested:

Search engines like Bing, offer auto-complete and related-search suggestions.  These help people find what they're looking for faster.  Auto-completion is determined algorithmically, largely based on the search queries that the largest number of searchers have typed in the past.  If you start to search on the term "New York City", auto-complete may suggest "New York City weather" or "New York City subway".  Related search suggestions will show query terms that are most likely to return content to be relevant to the original query term.

The algorithmic principles are the same for searches on individual names.  Use a search engine to start typing in your own name, or any name, and you'll often see auto-complete suggestions that can border on the offensive.  It's therefore a common reaction for some people to say:  I demand that the search engine block this term from searches on my name.  

Take my personal example.  I know that lots of people and sites have reported on my criminal conviction on behalf of Google in an Italian court, for which I was later acquitted on appeal.  Of course, I recognize that search engines are not really calling me a "criminal".  They are not exercizing editorial control over the association.  They are using algorithms to associate my name with what other people have searched for in the past, or with the related search query likely to generate the most number of relevant search results.  The underlying content may just as well be saying:  his criminal conviction was overturned on appeal.  So, I haven't asked Bing to block the word "criminal" from searches on my name.  I don't believe that they should, or should have to, and I'm sure Bing would refuse even if I asked them. 

Over and over again, especially in Europe, I see "privacy" being used as a justification to censor free speech.  The poorly-defined "right to be forgotten" is a much-discussed example.  I don't understand how we could protect notions of freedom of speech, and the neutrality of search engines, if people could decide themselves which terms they did not want associated with their names.  Practically, who would decide which terms were acceptable and which are not?  I think it's very dangerous to try to use search engines to censor search suggestions from reflecting content on the web, or to manipulate the algorithms to prevent them from objectively reflecting what users search for. 

There are a lot of people who don't want to see search engines make common suggestions after their names with terms like "Jew" or "gay" or..."criminal".  In a nutshell, that's the question:  Should some sensitive words simply be filtered from such results, or is that a step too far down the slippery slope of censorship?  

1 comment:

lahosken said...

When I start typing your name into Google, it auto-suggests "peter fleischmann buffalo". From this we can conclude that you have forgotten how to spell your own name; but this is forgivable because you're probably better at spelling than most other buffaloes.