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Google Privacy

Yes, Google Does De-List Pages; But When? 133

Posted by kdawson
from the how-offensive-is-too-offensive dept.
Frequent Slashdot contributor Bennett Haselton writes "Google finds itself inserting a disclaimer once again above some offensive search results. But the disclaimer still leads many to believe (incorrectly) that Google doesn't tamper with search results even in cases of 'harmful' or 'offensive' material. We know that Google has in fact de-listed some pages at the request of offended parties. What is their real policy on the issue?" Read on for Bennet's essay.

In 2004, when Google users discovered that the top search result for the word "Jew" was the anti-semitic site Jew Watch, Google ran a disclaimer in the space usually reserved for ads, explaining that their results only reflected the reality of link counts on the Web, and that they did not endorse any Web sites which appeared at the top of their listings. Now the disclaimer has been dusted off again, as the top result on Google Images for "Michelle Obama" is a picture of a monkey's face with Michelle's hairdo. (Ironically, it looks as if the original image would have fallen out of the rankings, if it hadn't been for a follow-up blog post about the controversy, which itself now comes up as the first result.)

I first heard about the controversy from Dennis Prager's column in which he takes a New York Times columnist to task, because the columnist complained about "racially offensive images of the first couple" that come up in Google searches. Prager was unable to find any examples from Googling "first couple" or "Michelle and Barack Obama pictures," so he concluded that the NYT columnist "wildly exaggerated, if not made up" his claims. I tried Google Image searches for "first couple," "Barack Obama," and some other terms, and I couldn't find anything controversial either. However, it only took 10 seconds to enter "first couple google images controversy" on the regular Google Web search and find multiple blog posts explaining what all the fuss was about. Back to Google 101 for Dennis.

Many of the blog posts refer to Google's disclaimer about not tampering with search results. Those on one side are urging Google to make an exception and "fix" the results, while others sagely observe that Google just reflects reality, it doesn't create it.

All of this punditry is starting from a premise that's wrong. Google has actually removed pages from their search results — not because the pages were illegal or because the webmasters were search engine spamming, but because of the page's "offensive" content. In the "Chester's Guide" incident, a councilman in Chester, England discovered that one of the search results for "chester guide" was a satirical page titled "Chester's guide to picking up little girls." Although the page itself was obviously just someone's idea of sick humor, a Chester city councilman (who admitted that he hadn't looked at the page, saying that the title told him everything he needed to know) urged Google to remove the page from their index. Google at first refused, but later manually blacklisted the page to prevent it from appearing in their search results.

Whether or not you think this was the right decision, probably depends on what you think is the purpose of Google. If Google's purpose is to return the most useful results, then it made sense to remove the link, as Danny Sullivan of Search Engine Watch argued at the time, since it almost certainly was not a useful result for people searching for "Chester Guide." On the other hand, if the primary purpose of Google is to reflect the reality of what pages on the Web feature certain words most prominently (combined with all the other factors that Google weighs, of course), then the results shouldn't be altered.

But more people should at least realize that it happened. The Google disclaimer doesn't precisely say that they never blacklist pages or modify search results ("Google reserves the right to address such requests individually"), but it seems to give most people the impression that that's the case. According to that crudest of Googling techniques for which novice searchers are so frequently lampooned, there appear to be about 400 times as many stories on the Web about the Google "Jew Watch" controversy (where Google stood their ground) as there are stores about the "Chester's Guide" incident (where Google caved).

And Google-number-three Matt Cutts posted on his blog back in March explaining why Google does not remove "offensive" pages from search results; over a hundred comments followed, debating the pros and cons of the position, but none of them mentioned the Chester incident or any other case where Google actually had removed pages except as a result of a court order. One isolated comment from "Anonymous" said:

This is not quite true. I know of at least one web site that was de-listed for containing illegal content and/or promoting illegal activity.

which may or may not have been a reference to the Chester Guide incident. And that was it.

Is this a lot of hay to be making over something that happened years ago? Well, for one thing, I doubt if it happened just once. Consider that the Chester Guide incident involved a public declaration of outrage by a city council, and a public statement from Google, and still hardly anyone knows that it ever happened. If other incidents occurred without those high-profile elements, it would be even harder to discover them now. We'll probably never know how many such incidents took place, unless someone sues Google (maybe the owner of a blacklisted website, or maybe the victim of a RipOffReport hatchet job wondering why that site hadn't been blacklisted long ago), subpoenas Google for a list of cases where pages were de-indexed, and publishes the list if it's not sealed by a court order.

But whether it was one time or a handful, consider that political candidates like Arnold Schwarzenegger and Al Franken got asked during their campaigns about things they did 20 years earlier, and it's fair to ask a candidate about their past, because it's the same person standing in front of you now. Why did you do that? Have you stopped? Why?

And in the big scheme of things, Google is probably more powerful than a single US senator or the governor of California. So, can't we ask? What are their real rules about page removal? Have those rules changed since the Chester's Guide controversy? Can they even tell us what their rules are, or do they consider it a trade secret?

It is well known, of course, that Google censors some results in their search engines branded for different markets like China and even in liberal democracies like Germany. But nobody would call that a slippery slope towards censorship in the US version of Google, because the censorship in the Chinese and German versions is done at the behest of the governments there. On the other hand, Google does admit that they will de-index pages which include credit card numbers or social security numbers (which are all too easy to find on the Web). This might not seem like a controversial position, but even this act of voluntary self-censorship may be dipping their toe in the water further than it seems. Most people do consider their credit card information more private than their home address. But surely there are people like J.D. Salinger who less about the privacy of their credit card number (which is easily changeable) than their home address (which isn't). If someone finds Salinger's address and posts it on the Web, should Salinger be able to demand that Google de-index the page? Why should Google cater to the majority who want to keep their credit card number secret, but not to the minority who care more about keeping their address secret? Another commenter on Matt Cutts's blog post asked:

"hi. I have a question. My mom 'googled' herself and it shows some of her medical problems. She wants/needs these pages removed from search engines."

Again, why shouldn't that be considered at least as private as a credit card number?

And finally, even Google's decision to display an "offensive results" disclaimer, for some results but not for others, raises the same "Where do you draw the line?" questions as the issue of page removal. The Michelle Obama monkey picture gets a disclaimer. But search for 'george w bush' and the first row includes a photoshopped (I think!) image of Bush flipping off the press. Does that warrant a disclaimer as well? (Maybe that's considered less unfair because, even though the picture is fake, it does depict something that actually happened.) The first image result for "bristol palin" is a photo of her engaged in underage drinking — a real photo, but probably unfair to call it the single most relevant photo of her on the Web.

So while Google might consider credit cards and social security numbers and search engine spam to be on one side of a "bright line," and everything else is served up without alteration, I think the line is blurrier than that, for at least those three reasons: (a) credit cards and SSNs are less private than some other that things that Google serves up anyway; (b) Google has unambiguously removed some content that fell outside that bright line, as in the Chester's guide incident, and (c) they make other "slippery slope" judgment calls about search results all the time (as in the question of when to show the disclaimer). So I hope that Google someday comes out with a more complete answer to the question. What is their real policy on what they will remove? The Chester's guide incident — would they do that sort of thing if the same situation came up today, or have their rules changed? If they want to go really deep, then is there a general set of principles from which their rules follow — explaining why, for example, they treat credit card numbers as more private than sensitive medical information? (Google did not respond to my request for comment, either through official channels or the unofficial back channels of friends who work there.)

I hope Google gives an answer some day. Even just to say, "It's a classified internal policy and that's all we're going to tell you." But once and for all, the answer is not "Google doesn't remove content just because it's 'offensive' or 'harmful.'"

Meanwhile, a modest suggestion about the disclaimer displayed above the search results: Put it where people will actually see it, in a separate line below the ads, but above the search results. Right now the link to the disclaimer is displayed as one of three ads across the top, and people don't look at the ads. But hey, people do buy ads, so if you push the disclaimer down a bit where people will read it, you also free up space for 50% more ad revenue!

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Yes, Google Does De-List Pages; But When?

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  • Dear Sir, (Score:4, Insightful)

    by u38cg (607297) <calum@callingthetune.co.uk> on Friday December 18, 2009 @01:08PM (#30490274) Homepage
    Am I alone in thinking that whoever Bennett is, I have no interest in his vague ramblings?
  • Neutral Party (Score:4, Insightful)

    by Reason58 (775044) on Friday December 18, 2009 @01:15PM (#30490400)
    It seems to me like it would be in Google's interest to remain neutral regarding search results. Now that Google has started censoring sites at their discretion I would think this forces them to take responsibility for all the results they provide. They are no longer simply a neutral party providing indexed results.
  • by girlintraining (1395911) on Friday December 18, 2009 @01:46PM (#30490928)

    What is their real policy on the issue?

    I thought it was obvious simply because they're a publicly-traded company: Protect their own asses first. If Google could be subjected to substantially negative press, delist the site. Rationalizations come later in the form of policies, laws, rules, and procedures.

  • Re:Neutral Party (Score:5, Insightful)

    by Interoperable (1651953) on Friday December 18, 2009 @01:54PM (#30491056)

    You make a couple of good points. I completely agree that the slippery slope that Google has to tread carefully on is not one of censorship, but one of liability. Many people seem to think that Google has a moral imperative to objectively reflect the "reality" of the web. They don't. Anyone who feels that Google does or should act in way that is not in their best interest is going to be disappointed.

    Google does what they must in each country to remain the dominant search engine. That means abide by local censorship laws, bow to public opinion and avoid becoming liable for search results. Google will always do what will funnel the most money into their coffers but so far they have been very clever to recognize that neutrality and openness can accomplish that goal very well. The debate of "should Google censor results?" hinges on only one criterion: profitability. That goal, in turn, depends on what will preserve the largest possible ad revenue while mitigating liability.

    Google is not a public service, it is a publicly traded corporation.

  • Re:Dear Sir, (Score:5, Insightful)

    by religious freak (1005821) on Friday December 18, 2009 @01:58PM (#30491136)
    I think he had some interesting points, but it could've been summed up in a couple paragraphs.
  • by fast turtle (1118037) on Friday December 18, 2009 @02:05PM (#30491226) Journal

    The first point that needs to be thought about is the U.S Privacy laws regarding Health/Medical Records. There is absolutely no reason for any pages from those two topics to be in the search results, particularly as Google is a United States Corporation. Means they can be sued/fined heavily under HIPPIA for violations.

    Another is the censorship issue in general. I'll agree that I don't like the Idea of them Caving in to China's demands but only the People of China have any say in their governments decision unless you are willing to declare war and attempt to enforce those requirements upon them by force of arms.

    In regards to the Chester Guide, I'm open to debate on whether the page should have been removed from the index or simply gotten the disclaimer? It's important to note that Censorship of any kind is the beginning of a very slippery slope and who's to say that Google hasn't already started the long slide into irrevelency by caving in to both China and Germany's demands and that's the bigger issue. Google has stated that they want to make all known information available but if they're censoring pages at the request of governments, who's to say they aren't censoring pages that governments have not requested? On the China and German Censorhip issues, keep in mind that the censorship only applies within the country that asked for it. Outside still gets access to it. This means the information is only censored on a regional level instead of worldwide as happened with the "Chester Guide".

  • by Chrutil (732561) on Friday December 18, 2009 @02:11PM (#30491324)
    and experts-exchange please. I would pay hard cash to have them removed from any future search result.
  • Re:Neutral Party (Score:5, Insightful)

    by ajs (35943) <ajsNO@SPAMajs.com> on Friday December 18, 2009 @02:13PM (#30491356) Homepage Journal

    "Now that Google has started censoring sites at their discretion"

    Nope, I don't read anything above which in any way suggests that it's at their discretion. The only example that might imply that we have too little detail to know for sure (the local government official that got Google to delist a page, which Google initially refused, but then complied... implying that there's an intermediate conversation we're not privy to).

    This all seems to run the usual route: when compelled to remove information by law, or when certain information presents an obvious legal and financial liability to Google (e.g. exposing credit card numbers), they delist pages as technical means of identification allow, as a matter of compliance.

    This is exactly what Google and every other search engine have been doing since the dawn of Web search, and it's the only reasonably correct solution.

  • by gedrin (1423917) on Friday December 18, 2009 @02:21PM (#30491464)
    The Microsoft example is benign, but suppose all searches for news on scandal X redirected to poltical supporters (or opponents). It just seems like a mechanism that allows for exploitation by power blocks.
  • by Xtifr (1323) on Friday December 18, 2009 @02:48PM (#30491908) Homepage

    Perhaps you have a short attention span.

    Or perhaps he's just not a very good writer. I got several paragraphs in, and had no idea where he was going or what point he was trying to make. He presented some interesting facts, then started to recap them, and showed no signs of drawing any conclusions, so I skimmed ahead a little, and it still didn't seem like he was adding anything more. It was interesting till it started to ramble aimlessly, at which point, I gave up. I read extensively, and polish off several books a week usually. I read Knuth for fun. I plowed my way through Stephenson's Baroque Trilogy, and even managed to enjoy parts of it. I don't think anyone could accuse me of having a short attention span. But I couldn't finish this--or, more precisely, I had no interest in finishing this. The topic seemed interesting, but if he had a conclusion, it was lost in the noise.

    The man seems to be in love with his own words, but, unfortunately, has no idea who his audience is. If he's writing for anyone but himself, it doesn't show.

  • Re:Neutral Party (Score:1, Insightful)

    by Anonymous Coward on Friday December 18, 2009 @04:26PM (#30493462)

    If you were to post child porn on the board, and the board owner said "well, I didn't post it, so it's not my problem if I just leave it up there", do you think that owner would end up in jail?

    I do.

  • by Restil (31903) on Friday December 18, 2009 @04:31PM (#30493520) Homepage

    First off, home addresses and phone numbers never used to be a private matter. Everyone was always in the phone book, student directories with phone numbers AND addresses were passed out to all the students every year. IF someone had an unlisted number, it seemed to be noteworthy for some reason. Of course, I'm talking 20+ years ago. Now, people seem to be much more cautious about having their home addresses and phone numbers listed. Of course, now that you can be targeted for prank calls by anyone on the internet... perhaps hiding this information seems to make more sense.

    As for medical information, how did that end up on the searchable internet to begin with? Hospitals don't tend to create public webpages detailing the medical conditions of their patients, complete with real names. About the only way news of her extreme toenail fungus would end up on the internet is if she were blogging about it.... or telling friends about it, who in turn feel the need to discuss it in front of a world audience.

    As the post made clear, if you want something to disappear, the quickest way to do so is to STOP TALKING ABOUT IT. Nothing stirs up popularity in the age of the internet more quickly than someone complaining about, and then posting a link to, offensive content.

    Also, while Google can pretty much do whatever they want as far as delisting or rank adjusting, it's not in their best interests to censor information just because it's mildly offensive to someone, as it provides precedent and opens them up to potential lawsuits when they don't... or do... Common carrier defense and all that. However, in the
    age of pedophile witch-hunts, they can pretty safely de-link something of that nature without getting anyone too upset about it. Nobody is going to mount a strong opposition to the removal of that type of material, and anyone who supported it has no fight once it has been removed, so nobody talks about it. No talking, no linking, and therefore no Googling.

    -Restil

  • by snowwrestler (896305) on Friday December 18, 2009 @04:33PM (#30493538)

    Google may have delisted a few pages. I wonder if it happens in situations where they could have been concerned about (or maybe faced) legal action. Note that the Chester example is a person in the UK, about whom were written harmful things that are untrue. I believe the UK has libel laws that strongly favor the complainant.

    In many cases what Google has done is updated their algorithm. This is not the same as delisting, as the content is still findable. For instance it was not long before the monkey image of Michelle Obama was no longer on the first page for a GIS of "Michelle Obama." However if you searched "Michelle Obama monkey," it was the very first result. From the point of view of Google, this is probably an improvement to their product. IIRC when they defused the "miserable failure" Googlebomb of George W. Bush, many Googlebombs were shuffled out of the top spots as well.

    Google says their mission is to organize the world's information and make it findable. My guess is that they are firmly on the side of "search represents general relevance" rather than "search reflects online popularity at that moment in time." I think people too easily fall into thinking about how Google works, rather than what its ideal results should be. If I opened a history book 30 years from now and looked up "Michelle Obama" in the index, it would not make sense for that monkey image to be the illustration.

  • Re:Neutral Party (Score:3, Insightful)

    by SirWinston (54399) on Friday December 18, 2009 @04:38PM (#30493606)

    > Google is not a public service, it is a publicly traded corporation.

    And that, in a nutshell, is what's wrong with this country. Publicly traded corporations can and will maximize short to medium-term profit at any and all costs, including costs to the health and well being of the country, its citizens, and their own long-term viability. In corporate persons, moral, ethical, and sometimes legal, obligations are trumped by fiduciary ones in ways which natural persons could never so compromise.

    Google's credo of "Don't be evil" remains so because it's profitable for the time being; but we should never believe it makes Google any different from Microsoft, Goldman Sachs, or Enron, in the long run. Until corporations, which have been given by the courts and legislatures the same rights as individual people, are held to the same moral, ethical, and legal responsibilities, we cannot have a well-functioning society which operates to preserve and further the rights and abilities of all.

The tree of research must from time to time be refreshed with the blood of bean counters. -- Alan Kay

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