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Google's Ethics Committee revealed

There are men behind the machines - shock!

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While it carries the imprimatur of objectivity, science doesn't operate in an ethical vacuum. As the late Stephen Jay Gould often pointed out, scientists make value judgments all the time, and science is a reflection of wider social values [*]. At Google, the gatekeeper to a trove of digital information, as everywhere else, it's humans not machines who make value decisions. But perhaps more than any other company Google has strived to convince us that machines not men should take responsibility for these decisions.

The Google News page claims, "The selection and placement of stories on this page were determined automatically by a computer program". But this program didn't program itself, of course, and when pressed for more detail of what constitutes news or a news source, Google's explanations have been tortuous and evasive. In a more recent case, Google issued a response to groups protesting the placement of a vile hate site at the top of a search for "Jew", Google issued an explanation: "The only sites we omit are those we are legally compelled to remove or those maliciously attempting to manipulate our results." However, this doesn't entirely give the full picture: the People's Republic of China has succeeded where the Jewish Anti-Defamation League has failed, and Google censors results for Chinese Internet users. Few take such claims that the machines, or algorithms are solely responsible, at face value. We can argue that Google is right or wrong - but we can't dispute that it's making value judgements.

Google walks

Thanks to a resourceful Israeli journalist, we know a little more about how such decisions are reached. Google has an Ethics Committee, the company's Dr. Eran Gabber revealed yesterday to a group of Israeli students. Google never mentions such details to the press, but Ido Kenan, a reporter for the daily NRG Maariv found himself in a recruitment talk by Dr.Gabber. (A blabbing blogger had spilled the details of Gabber's visit to Tel Aviv University).

"We change PageRank™ when we find that spammers are abusing it, but we don't change it often. There's an internal ethics committee in Google," Maariv reports. "Internally, there are people who are concerned about ethics. In Google, there are a lot of people who find ethics important".

As well they should. However news of unannounced Ethics Committee is at odds with earlier reports that Google amends search results on the fly, as reported last year. Kenan has tried, without much success, to press Google on what is included in its News site, one of the most popular web destinations. The answers he received from Google News mirrored Krishna Bharat's acrobatics in an interview with a trade publication last autumn, which we discussed here.

Passing responsibility onto dumb machines is a ploy that Microsoft founder Bill Gates has tried. When pressed during an Antitrust deposition as to who had written an email from his account, Gates eventually replied, "the machine wrote it." As gatekeepers to information, Microsoft and Google deserve special scrutiny. Wisely, Microsoft has refrained from engaging in trite and sanctimonious Google's "Do No Evil." If it feels unfairly singled out, it should remember that this is a comparison it invited upon itself. ®

Bootnotes: [*] science funding offers a good example; the science we see is a reflection of the research considered worth paying for, and that reflects the values of the sponsors. Picture courtesy of Daniel Brandt (Google Watch, Yahoo! Watch.)

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