Google drops nuke on 'objective' search engine utopia
Mountain View in shock 'opinions drive algorithms' claim
Google's utopian vision of a uniquely democratic and completely objective web search engine is dead. It died about three years ago. While no one was looking, Google killed it.
Google now freely admits that its search algorithms are driven by its own "opinion." Earlier this month, when the company rejigged its algorithms in response to a New York Times article that showed how at least one character boosted his Google ranking by abusing his customers, Mountain View flatly discussed the change as a matter of opinion. And when one eagle-eyed blogger let out a virtual gasp, uber Googler Matt Cutts popped up confirming the stance, acting like no one should be surprised.
Google has used such language to describe its algorithms, Cutts said, since 2007. "We went through our website documentation," he wrote in response to John Battelle's blog post. "We tried to clarify where possible that although we employ algorithms in our rankings, ultimately we consider our search results to be our opinion." As Cutts pointed out, Google's "technology overview" page now says "PageRank reflects our view," not "PageRank is an objective measurement."
In one sense, this "clarification" is merely stating the obvious. Of course Google's algorithms are its own opinions. As Cutts pointed out, he publicly used similar language to describe the company's algorithms as far back as 2006. But such talk is still nothing less than shocking. Google pushed the notion of an unimpeachably objective search for so long and so hard, it's burned into the brains of the world's digerati.
Even Google's own employees continue to believe in the objectivity myth. "It's important to remember that our search results are generated objectively and are independent of the beliefs and preferences of those who work at Google," Lucinda Barlow, head of corporate communications for Google Australia, said as recently as last January.
For years, this is the way Google officially described its search results. The language is conveniently preserved by the Internet Archive. And in some cases, the company continues to play the objectivity card when defending itself against complaints of bias. Foundem – the UK-based vertical search outfit that sparked the EU's antitrust investigation of Google – claims that Google's algorithms are biased because they whitelist out certain sites, pointing to emails where Google employees say as much. But officially, Google denies the whitelists, indicating that all sites are subject to the same machine-driven treatment.
Google's Matt Cutts
When we asked Google to officially confirm that its search results constitute its opinions, it did. And it pointed us back to that 2006 statement from Matt Cutts. "When savvy people think about Google, they think about algorithms, and algorithms are an important part of Google," Cutts told John Battelle that year. "But algorithms aren't magic; they don't leap fully-formed from computers like Athena bursting from the head of Zeus. Algorithms are written by people. People have to decide the starting points and inputs to algorithms. And quite often, those inputs are based on human contributions in some way."
It's an apt description. But Google goes even further in using the word "opinion." And as John Battelle indicates, you have to at least ask how that one word plays into the antitrust issue. Ultimately, in order to prove antitrust violations, you have to prove competitive harm. But according to Herbert Hovenkamp, an antitrust scholar at the University of Iowa, Google "opinion" talk could weaken its antitrust defense.
"In order to violate antitrust laws, a search engine has to be more than simply biased. It has to be biased in some way that affects economic competition," Hovemkamp tells The Reg. "But if Google's opinions favor its own economic interests and disfavored competitors, then yes [it could weaken their defense]."
Google: 'We're just trying to be accurate...'
Google, well, sees thing differently. The company argues that whether its algorithms are objective or subjective has no impact on antitrust discussions. Company competition lawyer Kevin Yingling tells The Register that it began using the "opinion" language simply because it wanted to be more precise. "It's just a more accurate description of the way things work," he says. "This isn't driven by our antitrust analysis. We're just trying to be more accurate in how we convey how the results are determined."
According to Cutts, Google changed its documentation in 2007 after a pair of federal courts ruled that the company's search results were protected under the First Amendment to the US Constitution, which covers "free speech." When we first asked Google about the documentation change, it pointed us to the same court cases. Both involved companies that sued Google over their placement in Google's search ranking: KinderStart, which ran a website for new parents, and SearchKing, which ran a search engine and ad network.
"PageRanks are opinions - opinions of the significance of particular Web sites as they correspond to a search query," the SearchKing decision said.
"The court simply finds there is no conceivable way to prove that the relative significance assigned to a given Web site is false. Accordingly, the court concludes Google's PageRanks are entitled to full constitutional protection."
Cutts says that Google changed its documentation in direct response to the Kinderstart ruling. "Even though Google won the case, we tried to clarify where possible that although we employ algorithms in our rankings, ultimately we consider our search results to be our opinion," he said. "That single point, which courts have agreed with, proves that there's no universally agreed-upon way to rank search results in response to a query. Therefore, web rankings (even if generated by an algorithm) are are an expression of that search engine's particular philosophy."
Google rankings are undoubtedly protected under the First Amendment. "Google is allowed to inject its own views into the discourse, when it acts as an organization of the press," San Jose law professor and tech law blogger Eric Goldman tells The Reg. "It's allowed to operate its press free from government oversight." What's more, he says, Google is protected under Congressional law: 47 USC 230. But this doesn't address antitrust issues.
"A lot of the debate over whether Google can set its algorithms as it wants or not has been resolved statutorily [in 47 USC 230]," Goldman says. "We have a statute that addresses this particular issue. It doesn't address the interplay between editorial discretion and antitrust...[but] Congress said 'we want people to make whatever decisions they want to restrict objectionable material and we're not going to second guess that.'"
Like Goldman, Google argues that its search engine is protected in the same way a newspaper is protected. "The newspaper analogy is a pretty strong one in a lot of ways," Google competition lawyer Kevin Yingling tells us. "It's our content, what we think is relevant, either in websites or actually delivering content to users on that first page. And then we sell advertising against that, which is similar to what a newspaper does."
This is true. But again, Google goes still further. Calling algorithms your "editorial judgment" is one thing. Calling them "opinions" is another. What happens if the search engine is used to harm competition? Now that Google has so strongly backed the opinions idea, are courts and regulations more likely to come down on Google for antitrust violations? These are questions worth asking – especially when you consider how doggedly the company has hidden behind the objectivity argument in the past.
Google says the objectivity stance was never meant to mislead. "I think the legacy of us referring to our results as objective really plays into the response we had to the way some search engines used to present results, where they would present paid results within their search results," Kevin Yingling says. "Our promise never to do that really drove a lot of the conversation about referring to this as objective."
But there's a reason John Battelle, a longtime Google watcher, was so shocked when Google pulled out the opinion talk. And the timing was doubly shocking. It came just days after the European Union said it was officially investigating Google for antitrust violations. Randy Picker, an antitrust scholar at University of Chicago, tells The Register that in the context of antitrust law, Google's new opinion language isn't that important. But he sees where it might sway the, well, opinion of regulators.
"It was such a sharp example of Google tweaking their algorithm in response this New York Times story," he says. "All of the sudden, it looks a lot more hand massaged than it did before. To the extent that people think they're doing [uncompetitive] things with the algorithm, that example is going to come back and people are going to pay attention to that."
The First Amendment doesn't trump antitrust law. "The posture of the Supreme Court has been that the First Amendment operates subject to the general laws of the land, one of the them being the antitrust statute. " Picker says. We would also add that in Europe, the First Amendment doesn't exist. ®