Google's early and strong commitment to their users and informal corporate mission to "Do No Evil" or to "Don't be evil" has gained them wide trust. While their web search technology is well known, Google specializes in general data indexing. As a trusted and centralized source of information on the web, Google has assumed immeasurable power. Now as a publicly traded corporation with over three thousand employees, Google must assume a great responsibility to their users, to deliver fair and relevant results and to protect privacy at all costs. As their user base grows and their popularity increases, decisions at Google will not come without ethical consequences.
The node ranking technology, dubbed PageRank, is used in some form to rank web pages, news articles, images, and user documents. It appears at first glance to be a democratic system, but it is a flawed one. Under most democratic systems, votes are weighted equally. PageRank, however, is mathematically inclined to give more power to relevant pages. To Google's credit, since web pages frequently contain more than one link and thus vote more than once, the page's total importance is at least disseminated among its links. In spite of Google's patents giving away much of the ranking method, certain variables and factors remain a secret and draw skepticism to the impartiality of the ranking scheme. Further, it is known that scrubbing mechanisms other than PageRank prepare the search results for their final display on Google's web page.
Among the further scrubbing methods of search results, one that I found most surprising is that Google censors search results in China, France, and Germany. While I was aware that the targeted material is illegal in those countries, I had previously interpreted Google's "Do No Evil" attitude to include objecting to authoritarian one party states and Third Reich-inspired censorship. It would be virtuous of Google and would further general human knowledge if they were to insist on the mass dissemination of information to all people of the world. Google is free to run their web search from the United States and freely put material on the web outside of the jurisdiction of China, France, or Germany, and in fact their Chinese operation is based in the United States. In the case of China, however, practicality won out over virtue when the Chinese censors completely banned Google. If the search engine was to have any Chinese user base whatsoever, in the interest of their ultimate goal of putting the user first, they needed to comply. While no concrete information is available on how much Google colluded with the Chinese, they did comply with the censors, restoring access to the Chinese citizens.
When not legally obliged to censor results, Google strives for impartiality but leave many questions unanswered. In a letter titled "An explanation of our search results," Google explains why offensive results can occur for seemingly inoffensive search terms, how "search results are generated completely objectively and are independent of the beliefs and preferences of those who work at Google." Further, the letter recognizes petitions that requested the removal of hate sites, but Google notes that they only omit sites they are "legally compelled to remove or those maliciously attempting to manipulate [their] results." These claims appear promising and it is quite believable that Google does not omit results, but it is commonly known that certain factors of exact rankings are still hidden from the public.
Google officials recently leaked to the public that they had an internal ethics committee that is periodically in charge of altering the PageRank algorithm. I expected privacy and ethics employees to be found at a company of Google's size, but what I didn't expect to find is that the committee is merely an informal gathering of employees interested in ethics. To ensure impartiality and to form trust in Google's ethical decisions, they need an official ethics committee with training, experience, and direction. Without public statements from Google's official ethics committee as to how they change the algorithm and what criteria they follow in doing so, the impartiality of PageRank is under suspicion.
When complex technology delivers trusted results, as with government cryptographic standards, complete transparency can often be an ideal way to ensure impartiality. In the case of Google, however, complete transparency has immediate downfalls. Because achieving genuine relevancy is difficult and cheating the system is considerably easier, PageRank has become a dynamic target for malicious webmasters who consistently overcome the latest algorithm tweaks to achieve high rankings for irrelevant pages. Delivering usable search results consists not only of identifying the relevant pages to place near the top of the rankings, but also of identifying junk or spam pages in order to place those results near the bottom. With these facts in place, I learned an important lesson: complete transparency of Google's ranking methods would result in direct widespread manipulation, rendering the results irrelevant and denying the technology its usefulness.
If the PageRank specifications were to somehow assume complete and deserved trust of their impartiality from the public, I would still hold several issues with their nature. First, PageRank likens the web to a popularity contest. Resembling a student body election, Google is often guilty of burying the most relevant and useful results simply because no one has noticed them yet. Second, if ideological bias does exist in the news media, then I consider PageRank to be culpable in perpetuating it. Many theories of media bias are based around the concept of an echo chamber of unpopular but powerfully backed opinion that drowns out an unbiased or otherwise popular opinion. PageRank is perfectly suited for creating such an echo chamber, in that when a news search returns hundreds of pages, most Google users read the first few and do not ensure that the other 99% corroborate.
Google has become a substantial news source and plays a part in telling the web which stories are relevant, when in fact the web should be telling Google what is relevant. The same issue holds for normal web searches; when Google was a relatively unknown outside observer to the social interactions on the web, PageRank was fresh and promising. As Google slowly begins arbitrating these interactions by dictating what is relevant to trusting masses, PageRank could become stale and merely project importance on its own monstrous creations.
For many of these issues, the time for true remedies is over. Google cannot go back to a 50 employee company and embrace a proper ethics committee, and they cannot go back to a Stanford dorm room and better democratize PageRank technology. Worse yet, Google will likely never be a non-profit organization with only its users truly in mind; the responsibility of a publicly traded company like Google is to its stakeholders. The company is faced with the challenging task of gaining public trust in its technologies through transparency or other means, while skeptical users are faced with an even more difficult choice: whether to boycott the most useful search technology in history.
BBC News. "10 things the Google ethics committee could discuss." May 20, 2004. http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/magazine/3732475.stm
Brandt, Daniel. "PageRank: Google’s Original Sin." Google Watch, Public Information Research, Inc. August 2002. http://www.google-watch.org/pagerank.html
Elgin, Ben. "Google's Chinese Wall." BusinessWeek Online, The McGraw-Hill Companies Inc. September 30, 2004. http://www.businessweek.com/bwdaily/dnflash/sep2004/ nf20040930_3318_db046.htm
Garfinkel, Simson. Database Nation: The Death of Privacy in the 21st Century. O’Reilly and Associates, Inc. 2001.
Google. "An explanation of our search results." 2004. http://www.google.com/explanation.html
Google. "Google Code of Conduct." August 18, 2004. http://investor.google.com/conduct.html
Google. "Media Coverage." http://www.google.com/press/press.html
Newton, Jon. "Google and the Chinese Government." TechNewsWorld, September 22, 2004 6:00 AM PT. http://www.technewsworld.com/story/36818.html
Orlowski, Andrew. "Google’s Ethics Committee Revealed." The Register. May 17, 2004. http://www.theregister.co.uk/2004/05/17/google_ethics_committee/
Orlowski, Andrew. "Google values its own privacy. How does it value yours?" The Register. April 13, 2004. http://www.theregister.co.uk/2004/04/13/asymmetric_privacy/
Rogers, Ian. "The Google PageRank Algorithm and How It Works." IPR Computing Ltd. http://www.iprcom.com/papers/pagerank/index.html
Våge, Lars. "China's search engine censorship continues." InternetBrus. February 27, 2005. http://www.pandia.com/sw-2005/09-china.html
Wikipedia. "Google." May 27, 2005 http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Google
Xia, Bill. "Google Chinese News censorship demonstrated." Dynamic Internet Technology Inc. September 16, 2004. http://www.dit-inc.us/report/google200409/google.htm
Zittrain, Jonathan and Edelman, Benjamin. "Localized Google search result exclusions - Statement of issues and call for Data." Berkman Center for Internet & Society, Harvard Law School. October 26, 2002. http://cyber.law.harvard.edu/filtering/google/