Feeds

Google's Ethics Committee revealed

There are men behind the machines - shock!

  • alert
  • submit to reddit

High performance access to file storage

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.)

Related stories

Google files Coca Cola jingle with SEC
Google values its own privacy. How does it value yours?
PR rules, OK? Google ducks promised news policy pledge
Google News: press releases are OK – Official
Google launches email - takes the Bill Gates defense

SANS - Survey on application security programs

More from The Register

next story
Dropbox defends fantastically badly timed Condoleezza Rice appointment
'Nothing is going to change with Dr. Rice's appointment,' file sharer promises
Audio fans, prepare yourself for the Second Coming ... of Blu-ray
High Fidelity Pure Audio – is this what your ears have been waiting for?
Record labels sue Pandora over vintage song royalties
Companies want payout on recordings made before 1972
Ex–Apple CEO John Sculley: Ousting Steve Jobs 'was a mistake'
Twenty-nine years later, post-Pepsi exec has flat-forehead moment
Zucker punched: Google gobbles Facebook-wooed Titan Aerospace
Up, up and away in my beautiful balloon flying broadband-bot
Apple DOMINATES the Valley, rakes in more profit than Google, HP, Intel, Cisco COMBINED
Cook & Co. also pay more taxes than those four worthies PLUS eBay and Oracle
Number crunching suggests Yahoo! US is worth less than nothing
China and Japan holdings worth more than entire company
prev story

Whitepapers

SANS - Survey on application security programs
In this whitepaper learn about the state of application security programs and practices of 488 surveyed respondents, and discover how mature and effective these programs are.
Combat fraud and increase customer satisfaction
Based on their experience using HP ArcSight Enterprise Security Manager for IT security operations, Finansbank moved to HP ArcSight ESM for fraud management.
The benefits of software based PBX
Why you should break free from your proprietary PBX and how to leverage your existing server hardware.
Top three mobile application threats
Learn about three of the top mobile application security threats facing businesses today and recommendations on how to mitigate the risk.
3 Big data security analytics techniques
Applying these Big Data security analytics techniques can help you make your business safer by detecting attacks early, before significant damage is done.