Matt Moore

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Technology » Is Google Search Biased?

Jul 24, 2016

I've been recently asked whether Google search is biased or not. I thought I'd do a quick review of the facts I can find. Here's what I've come up with.

This seems to have started with a video posted by SourceFed:

First, I think it's fair to point out that these are autocomplete results, not search results. Google's search results still return information related to "Hillary Clinton crimes", or whatever else might be deemed "disparaging" to her.

It's true that a lot of Google employees tend to be more liberal than conservative, in the sense that they stand up for traditionally underprivileged groups such as the LGBTQ community, feminism, and generally have leanings toward more progressive politics.

But does this mean that Google is actually trying to, as a company, intentionally alter search results or autocomplete? The answer isn't quite so simple. I think the key issue here is that a lot of people don't seem to realize that Google's results aren't manually determined. They are the result of an artificial intelligence system that uses machine learning algorithms and models, coupled with data from the rest of the web, to determine what results to display, and what autocomplete terms to suggest. That AI system isn't perfect, though it's gotten darn good over the years. What's important to realize about the AI is that ultimately it learns from the world wide web itself. Whatever cultural opinions are currently trending on the web will go on to be a part of how Google provides answers to search terms. What this means is that the AI can't detach itself entirely from what the general "web consensus" happens to be. Google is biased because the content it feeds on—which web users have generated—is biased. Yelling at Google for being biased in results is the same as yelling at the population for being biased. Junk in equals junk out.

That being said, Google's ranking system is fairly genius. It attempts to figure out what you want to view from the search terms you entered, where you're located in the world, and what time you're accessing that content. There are lots of variables that come into play when trying to figure out what results to give you that, hopefully, will be what you're looking for. Google has the brightest minds in search technology working on these computation problems. These are not easy problems to solve, and require lots of knowledge in the areas of statistics, machine learning, and data science, as well as very advanced computer science and programming skills. A lot of the people working on these issues have several advanced doctorates in these fields and spent years building these AI systems.

The problem with claiming that Google employees are intentionally biasing their results is that there's no really good way to prove this without seeing their internal data and algorithms. Of course, those are proprietary. But so are the algorithms and models at Yahoo and Bing. And don't assume that Yahoo or Bing (owned by Microsoft) would be any less likely to want to alter their results than Google might.

Is it possible that a search engine company could alter their results? Absolutely. Is it likely that Google is doing this with intent of manipulation? At present there's no solid reason to think so. Matt Cutts, a top engineer at Google, has issued statements about what Google is doing. There are certain terms they avoid that would be considered disparaging when coupled with a person's full name, although this appears not to be applied when only a first or last name are used. Does it work every time? Probably not. Does it learn and attempt to get better at it automatically? Yes, that is precisely what AIs try to do. You can read more about Matt Cutts' comments here.

Is it scary that search engine companies could do this? Absolutely. The ability to alter public opinion is a vary scary power. But I think the greatest crime here is that people are relying on any single search engine to give them answers to questions that they should investigate more rigorously. Search engines like Google, Yahoo, and Bing are tools to find things on the web. Some work better than others. From a general AI design perspective, Google is ahead of the other companies. But they also have their own business agendas and people should always be aware of that. So do all the other businesses like Yahoo and Microsoft.

On a side note, Microsoft Windows can and does spy on users actively, and report information back to Microsoft about your usage habits. Are you going to stop using Windows and switch to Mac OS or Linux? The NSA has illegally spied on American citizens and the U.S. government has wrongly imprisoned citizens without due process as guaranteed under the Constitution. Will you fight back? Will you back Edward Snowden's whistleblowing? See more about that at the Electronic Frontier Foundation.