By Noah Cohen, The New York Times, September 25, 2011
DESPITE his prominent position as a Republican candidate for president, Rick Santorum has lost control of his online identity. And for all the snickering online about it, his predicament stands as a chilling example of what it means to be at the mercy of the Google algorithm.
For those not in on the joke, Mr. Santorum’s torment is that when you look up his last name on Google, and the Bing search engine as well, you encounter a made-up definition of “Santorum” meant to ridicule him in a way that isn’t remotely fit to be described in a family newspaper.
And Mr. Santorum has responded in a way that only holds himself up to more ridicule. He has taken aim at Google, telling the Web site Politico last week, “To have a business allow that type of filth to be purveyed through their Web site or through their system is something that they say they can’t handle, but I suspect that’s not true.”
The immediate reaction to Mr. Santorum’s statement has largely been: “How quaint. He thinks he can get Google to fix the Internet for him if he asks?” Mr. Santorum could have hurt his cause more only if he had told the company’s officials to roll up their sleeves and put a plug in the tubes carrying the offensive material.
Google had its own response to Mr. Santorum. “Google’s search results are a reflection of the content and information that is available on the Web,” the company explained helpfully, concluding with a summation of its philosophy: “We do not remove content from our search results, except in very limited cases such as illegal content and violations of our webmaster guidelines.”
Its advice? “Users who want content removed from the Internet should contact the webmaster of the page directly,” the company wrote. “Once the webmaster takes the page down from the Web, it will be removed from Google’s search results through our usual crawling process.”
That advice is particularly unhelpful in Mr. Santorum’s case, however, since the new definition of “Santorum” was explicitly created by Dan Savage — the editorial director of the Seattle alternative weekly The Stranger and inspiration for the anti-gay-bullying campaign It Gets Better — to punish him for his comments in 2003 on gay marriage.
In an interview with The Associated Press, Mr. Santorum, who was then a senator from Pennsylvania, listed other types of relationships that likewise should not be recognized by the government: “That’s not to pick on homosexuality. It’s not, you know, man on child, man on dog, or whatever the case may be. It is one thing.”
Mr. Savage did not respond to an e-mail asking how he would react if Mr. Santorum were to ask him to remove the mocking definition, but on his paper’s blog he has shown no sign of relenting. In August, he took note of criticisms of him from right-wingers and wrote that they “can say whatever they like about us,” adding, “But we’re not allowed to challenge or mock them because thatwouldn’t be civil.”
But Mr. Savage’s thoughts should be beside the point. The question is best directed at the search engines. And Google’s defense — that the behavior of its ever-improving algorithm should be considered independent of the results it produces in a particular controversial case — has a particularly patronizing air, especially when it comes to hurting living, breathing people.
That’s not to say that Google’s beliefs aren’t consistent. In 2004, according to a history of Google, “In the Plex,” by Steven Levy, Sergey Brin, a co-founder of Google, was tempted to be subjective after receiving complaints that a search for “Jew” gave an anti-Semitic Web site as its first result.
He was angered by the results, but as Mr. Levy tells it: “The algorithms had spoken, and Brin’s ideals, no matter how heartfelt, could not justify intervention. ‘I feel like I shouldn’t impose my beliefs on the world,’ he said. ‘It is a bad technology practice.’ ”
But there was a case similar to Mr. Santorum’s, in which an offensive image of Michelle Obama was dropped from the top results. A search for “Michelle Obama” led viewers to a grotesquely racist photo much reported on in 2009. Google placed its own ad above those results, saying: “We assure you that the views expressed by such sites are not in any way endorsed by Google. Search engines are a reflection of the content and information that is available on the Internet.”
Again, it was the algorithm that took the hit, and washed away accountability.
That the offensive Michelle Obama photo no longer shows up today is not because of specific filtering, Google said at the time the change was detected, but rather a reflection of a better algorithm.
The blog Search Engine Land, which has followed the many twists and turns in offensive search results, explained the change in an August post as follows: “If you’re wondering why the offensive image doesn’t show up anymore on searches for ‘Michelle Obama,’ Google says it’s because of algorithmic improvements, not any specific filtering on her name. The spokesperson said that the company’s internal metrics show that they’re doing a much better job of identifying the authoritativeness of individual images — and the offensive image is not authoritative for Michelle Obama’s name.”
By those lights, it is hard to understand how the current rankings for a search of Santorum are authoritative — who exactly would type in that word genuinely curious to learn about a made-up term as opposed to a controversial candidate for president?
Douglas Bowman, Google’s first outside designer, wrote on his personal blog in 2009 after leaving the company of his experience trying to instill an aesthetic vision there, recounting the now legendary story of Google’s testing 41 shades of blue to see which was the best.
“When a company is filled with engineers, it turns to engineering to solve problems,” he wrote candidly. “Reduce each decision to a simple logic problem. Remove all subjectivity and just look at the data.”
To say that Google is losing something by neglecting the human touch isn’t to mean that the algorithm isn’t reflecting humanity — after all, a motivated person created the page that tops the results for “Santorum.” But it is putting the opportunistic and sensationalistic ahead of a rare human quality: discretion.