What would your biography look like if it was written by Google? Would Google emphasize the same aspects of your character and life story that you would?
If a set of court cases currently working their way through the Spanish justice system is any indication, Google would likely select the moments in history when you were at your lowest, splashing them across the book cover.
Imagine you run a childcare facility. A group of deeply religious parents spot a picture of Richard Dawkins on your desk, and decides you are Satanist and likely sexually abusing their children. Questionable psychiatrists, practicing the respected art of hypnotism, find plenty of repressed memories in the kids, and an indictment is secured. Prosecutors, doing their job, train the children to cry on the stand. After a month of hyped-up media coverage of the trial, the jury finds in your favor, the case is dismissed, and no grounds for appeal are found.
How would Google see this set of events?
Likely, it would look something like this:
How Google sees the world.
This isn’t strictly Google’s fault. Rather, it reflects the priorities of the media and bloggers, both of whom share humanity’s well-understood cognitive biases. We prefer negative news, tend to believe the first thing we hear, and suffer from confirmation bias. This informs the priorities of media and, more importantly in the case of Google, the blogosphere and web forums which churn out millions of hypertext links. These links inform the main algorithm Google uses to rank the search results it presents to users. At a very high level, the higher the number of links to a particular piece of information, the higher that information will be featured in search results, your Google biography.
The problem with this scheme is obvious in our hypothetical case. Anyone running a search for the name of your child care center, or, worse, your name, will be bombarded by links to news stories reporting the unsubstantiated claims of the children and parents, along with your desperate pleas of denial. The few web pages that cared to report the verdict of the case will likely be buried far past the top ten links, well beyond the first pages of results. In terms of a biography, the result of the case would be a minor footnote in the chapter detailing the allegations.
In most countries, this is all fine and dandy. After all, the news reports are more or less factual, and even if some bloggers stepped over the line into libel, you would have to go after them one by one. Not so in Spain. Spanish law contains a concept known as “the right to forget,” which I roughly understand as giving individuals the right to request biased historical aggregations of information about them be corrected or removed. Metaphorically, a biography must present one’s full life, not just one side of the story. The concept is separate from libel law, as the information in question may be perfectly factual. Instead, it focuses on privacy and fairness. While the individual news stories are perfectly legal, an aggregated history must not merely present out of date information.
Two interesting questions come out of the Spanish cases. First, do search engines and other aggregators of information have any responsibility to present a balanced picture in the results of a query? More fundamentally, how much should we change laws to reflect technological realities, and how much should we demand technology bend to laws, even if such bending is sometimes technologically impossible?
In the U.S., the legislative and judicial history related to computer technology has been largely dominated by attempts to force reality to confirm to legislative and judicial ideals. Classic examples include the Digital Millennium Copyright Act, various export regulations on cryptography, and attempted filtering schemes (i.e., opt-out censorship). Historically, I’ve been rather dubious of such efforts, doomed as they are in their goal of constraining information. Information may not literally want to be free, but the people who desire it haven’t shown themselves easily constrained by law. On the level of ideals, I find attempts to stop the free flow of information to be attacks on free speech and expression. Why can’t I describe an cryptography algorithm in code if I can print it in a book? Many of the regulations have this level of insanity associated with them.
However, the Spanish cases have made me partly reconsider. Google and other aggregators of information would certainly provide a better service if their results weren’t consistently one-sided for many types of search queries. Technologically, the problem of “balance” is unlikely to be completely solvable. Any process to determine balance is likely be either overly bureaucratic or prone to censorship. But if I am ever so unlucky as to go through a smear court case, it would certainly be nice if the first 20 pages of Google search results didn’t just present the accusations.
In the end, it is probably better to roll out the typical liberal solution, and call for better education. Making sure everyone is aware of their own cognitive biases and understands how to use a search engine properly would in the long term, (and in an ideal world), partially solve the problem without setting dangerous precedents that might lead to information censorship. But I’m not as convinced as I once was that there isn’t a little room for remedies involving the law. I would be interested to know what you think.