The Power of Inform ation Control
By: Daniel Pham, Katharine Singleton, and Karl Wonstolen
We urgently need to develop the fundamentals for just and equitable ethics and politics of search engines and to put into place mechanisms for their deployment. - Geoffrey Bowker 1
How many times in the last month has someone told you to “Google” something? The word has seeped into the English language and practically replaced traditional research methods. Does anyone actually know from where the term and company name originated?
Google is a play on the word googol, which was coined by Milton Sirotta, nephew of American mathematician Edward Kasner, and was popularized in the book, Mathematics and the Imagination by Kasner and James Newman. It refers to the number represented by the numeral 1 followed by 100 zeros. Google's use of the term reflects the company's mission to organize the immense, seemingly infinite amount of information available on the web. 2
The Internet is rapidly becoming America’s number one resource for information. It is fully integrated into the daily lives of many Americans. The Internet is used by millions to check email, get news and weather information, look up movie times, check flight schedules, update online profiles, and perform thousands of other activities. In the world of academia, scientists, researchers and students alike all turn to the Internet to solve their educational inquiries.
Since its creation over forty years ago, the Internet has revolutionized the way information is accessed. Communications that seemed impossible not so long ago are now occurring every second with just the touch of a button. One can access websites posted by governments around the world or talk with someone from another country simply by entering a chat room. The amazing possibilities unleashed by this technology seem endless. At the same time, it is not surprising that with the exponential spread of this revolutionary technology in the last twenty years, the world has not had the time or the capability to fully comprehend the many ethical dilemmas that arise with such advancement.
With this immense database of information the question arises as to how can it all be organized and made accessible equally to everyone. Currently, search engines search are the best answer to that question. They provide the most popular and user-friendly way to access information on the Internet. This bestows them with an immense amount of power over the often important information viewed by Internet users. In less than a decade two major search engines—Google and Yahoo!—have emerged as global leaders. Combined, these two companies account for over 75% of the market share in the industry. Microsoft, Ask.com, and Time Warner account for the remainder. 3 As the Internet is a virtual space “free” from ownership, there is very little regulation as to the methods these private sector companies employ to provide and organize information. Further, they are not required to reveal the processes they use to determine the order in which search results are displayed. Search engines must look at their ethical responsibilities to the public for industry regulation because they exist in an environment with no legal guidelines stipulating how to use their inherent power over information.
This paper will explore, through contractual, deontological and utilitarian ethical frameworks, why search engines need to analyze their responsibilities ethically. They must recognize the integral role they play in providing information to Americans. More importantly, they need to recognize and accept the ethical necessity to impartially organize and display the information which they so strongly control. There are two main actions that the major search engine companies need to take in order to act in an ethical manner from the three aforementioned perspectives. First, companies should begin tagging web pages returned by their searches as either: “fact”, “theory”, “fiction”, “opinion”, or “advertisement”. Secondly, search engines must start striving to return reasonably equal results when a search is requested on issues with multiple diverging viewpoints. Geoffrey Bowker, the executive director of the Center for Science, Technology and Development at Santa Clara University, echoed this point by stating, “We urgently need to develop the fundamentals for just and equitable ethics and politics of search engines and to put into place mechanisms for their deployment.” 4
The statistical data on Internet and search engine use is staggering. It is documented that in January of 2007, the Internet population soared to well over 175,000,000 users in the United States alone. While Google dominates the industry market share with over 47% of search engine traffic, Yahoo sites were actually visited more frequently with nearly 130,000,000 visitors, when Google had just over 1 13,000,000. 5
The monetary value associated with having this huge constituency is considerable to say the least. At the close of the most recent financial quarter, ending in December of 2006, Google’s earnings exceeded $1,000,000,000. For the entire year, the company grossed just under $4,000,000,000 in earnings. 6 Additionally, the value of one share of Google stock has risen 289.8% in less than two years from $177 per share in early 2005 to a high of $513 per share on November 22nd 2006. 7 The company boasts continued growth and analysts expect earnings and share value to continue rising. Clearly this company with a stable market share is capable of financially honoring its ethical responsibility by investing in more ethical practices that will provide benefits to the entire world. After all, the company’s informal motto is “Don’t be evil.”
Search engines provide an incredible service to those who use them. The strenuous effort and investment it takes to organize unfathomable amounts of information is considerable and cannot be overlooked. However, all the good provided by these companies does not exempt them from the responsibility to make every effort to act ethically in providing their service to the citizens of the world.
Furthermore, we assume that search engines are a corporate entity run by people. Therefore, the corporation and the people running it should strive to be ethically virtuous in order to promote the general welfare of users and all those affected by the knowledge encompassed in their web pages. For this reason, search engines should recognize their responsibility as a gatekeeper of global information and act in a responsible manner by not advancing a specific agenda and by doing their absolute best to objectively organize and present accurate information. We also assume that the magnitude of information on the Internet is too daunting to label in its entirety, however large search engines could label and return multiple views for the most frequently visited sites, and most commonly entered searches in their database.
We have found that search engines primary ethical responsibilities are derived from contractual, utilitarian-based, and deontological ethical frameworks. We assume an implied contract of service is present between users and search engine companies. Additionally, search engine corporations are entities that, similar to any other, should strive to act in a manner which will provide the greatest good as is reasonably possible. In this role as a corporation, search engines also have a duty to perform for their numerous stakeholders in each of the companies’ transactions, both of monetary and information exchanges.
The implied contract, which forms the basis of a contractual ethical framework for search engines, is a growing and changing contractual agreement. As one signs up to become a search engine “member” and customize their search engine home page, they can actually be subject to a contractual agreement. However, if someone just wants to run a search they can from almost any Internet-ready computer without a formal agreement. For these searches we assume an implied contract exists. The searcher is accepting the results of the engine; the engine is using their search data to generate revenue by displaying advertisements and compiling databases. The consumer has a right, due to this implied contract, to expect search results which are philosophically unbiased, unaffected by possible advertiser motives, and accurate when possible. Based on the fact that search engines are making money off these searches, it is a fair exchange of “goods”. Therefore, it is the company’s responsibility to honor this contract—this means making an effort to begin the labeling process.
From a deontological perspective, search engines have a difficult objective of balancing their ethical duty to multiple stakeholders. They have a job as a corporation to increase shareholder value by increasing income. This could be done by selling personal information to marketing firms. However, this is an example of the balance already being recognized because most search engine companies forgo this revenue due to their implied ethical duty to users not to sell their information without consent. The same balance must be found in dealing with advertisers. They have a stake in financial and information transactions because they are paying the search engine to inform consumers about their existence and products. The search engine has a duty based on the fact they are getting paid to increase their advertisers’ exposure. An easy way to do this is to put your biggest advertiser at the top of the search page. This interferes with the search engine’s duty to provide the most apt results for the search criteria even if that means displaying a company which provides no ad revenue at the top of the search.
Contractual and Deontological Perspectives
Search engines post user agreements outlining a contract between the searcher and the engine. These documents all state that the engine does not control the content of the sites they return when queried. They also claim that the engine is not liable for false information provided in their indexed sites. However, the engines state their goals and list their objectives in a non-binding format to provide accurate information. These objective statements show that search engine sites recognize the need to return accurate information in order to retain customers and revenue. The fact that they recognize this provides a framework to analyze the ethical duty of search engines with regard to honoring their contracts or the implied contract created by their stated objectives.
Google claims they want to be “the perfect search engine … giving back exactly what you [the searchers] want.” 8 Users want accurate information relevant to their query. Therefore, Google should begin honoring their desire to please customers by labeling sites as peer reviewed (close to fact), opinion (such as the many blogs that are likely to be returned) and so on. Google is one of the search engines that states in their “Terms of Service” that they do not guarantee what they return to be accurate. They state that all the sites in their index have not been reviewed by an employee and they therefore do not take responsibility for the information. Therefore, legally then Google does not have to label every site. However, we know that what is legal and what is ethical are often two very different ideals. The company does review some of the sites in their index and because their stated objective is to provide, “what the user wants” the engine’s duty is to begin labeling in order to honor the implied contract created by this claim.
About.com uses the same legal disclaimers stating that the sites they return in a search cannot legally be held to accuracy standards. At the same time they say, “We'll provide you with accurate, engaging content. Like a friendly neighbor, we'll give you frank advice that you can trust.” 9 They have an ethical duty to honor this statement by beginning to label what information they can. Despite not legally having to provide labels of fact or opinion, About.com should return only accurate information in accordance with the implied contract they have created by telling users that they would return accurate results.
About.com already does some of this labeling by clearly stating when a particular site returned by their search engine is connected through advertising with the search engine. 10 This is the ethically responsible action for them to take in order to make sure that when someone enters a search they are not just being sent to sites of the highest bidders. The engine is recognizing its responsibility to return the most relevant sites regardless of advertising income. Now it must go further with labeling to inform the searchers if a site has been reviewed, if it is opinion, and even make an effort to show multiple views on divisive issues.
Displaying conflicting viewpoints can be examined through the same deontological and contractual ethical viewpoints. Because search engines make these claims that they will return quality information, it is their duty to follow through on contract implied by these statements. They can do this by providing useful contrasting perspectives when information is sought on topics that do not have decisive answers. A “good” neighbor is duty bound to not just tell you exactly what they think, but should also give at least an opportunity for you to make a decision by presenting a little bit of the opposite side. This is especially true when search engines tell users they want to be useful and give users exactly what they want. Search engines obviously recognize the power of their information control, therefore it is incumbent upon them to recognize their duty to honor their ethical objective statements and return relevant information on all sides of an argument.
It is granted that search engines cannot possibly create a user agreement which actually guarantees presentation of all sides of every argument or completely accurate information because lawsuits over every minute misstatement would drive them out of business. Therefore, in the drive to return quality, usable information must be ethically based, not legally based. They can however, begin labeling sites and a guarantee of accuracy and non-biased information should be associated with only the sites search engines have reviewed in an attempt to honor their implied user contract.
The Utilitarian Perspective on Divisive Issues
A growing majority of Americans would likely say the Internet is their number one source for information. As previously discussed, many Americans would name Google their principal search engine. As a primary source of information in today’s world, Google has an ethical obligation from a utilitarian perspective to display balanced results on controversial and dichotomous issues in order to promote general welfare. There are many topics that can fall into the category of “split” or “dichotomous”. So, it is important to distinguish the types of information that need to be displayed in a balanced fashion. One could argue that virtually any topic can be considered dichotomous due to the fact that there are at least two sides to every story. However, there are a select number of issues that elicit considerably more passion from people than others. For example, passion driven topics would be politics and religion. Undoubtedly, people will have strong views, thoughts, and emotions regarding these areas and they will differ drastically from person to person. On the other hand, compare those topics to the number of people who have strong, deeply rooted, passionate, and conflicting views concerning the science behind baked beans or ice sculptures—not all topics need to be evaluated in the same manner. The point is that Google has an ethical obligation to ensure that those particular topics that clearly have multiple legitimate arguments are portrayed in a balanced manner that represents all sides equally to the best of their ability.
This obligation can be argued aptly from a utilitarian ethical standpoint. The utilitarian approach emphasizes that the ethical action is the one that provides the most good or does the least harm. In order to determine how Google displaying balanced results on dichotomous issues creates the most good, it is necessary to examine who the stakeholders are. First and foremost, Google Corporation is a primary stakeholder. By Google taking the necessary steps to give equal results to divisive topics, they will become more reputable to the general public and their users. In turn, this will create more traffic to their web site, which will result in more revenues and profit. It is possible that the profit gained from these actions will exceed the cost; therefore, this is also a feasible step from a business perspective. Google’s many stockholders will be rewarded with the increased company value. Furthermore, search engine users as well as the common person will benefit. This unbiased display of results will allow users to assess the given information from different perspectives; thus allowing them to create their own, well-informed opinions—assuming that they wish to do so. As rational people and users of Google, the public will benefit due to the fact that they can turn balanced information into knowledge used in their decision making process.
In order to further illustrate the importance of an equal balance of controversial issues, let us specifically examine the heated topics of politics and religion. If one accepts the premise that Google is a key information source for many Americans, then it is logical to assume that many will look to this tool as a way to research these topics just as they would any other. Given the controversial views surrounding these named areas of discussion, it is even more important for Google to maintain balanced results for the aforementioned particulars.
Consider the issue of politics. Public awareness of political issues has always been at the foundation of America’s functioning since the founding of the country. Public political decisions give our elected officials power to “control” aspects of Americans’ lives. So it goes without saying that who we elect to represent us will have at least some impact on our day to day lives. When elections come around, many will look to Google as a source to find information regarding their possible representatives. The information that is found will serve as rationale to vote for a particular candidate. That vote has serious implications considering it will likely affect the types of actions and policies implemented by the elected officials for years to come. If this holds true, then it is comprehensible that Google has a utilitarian obligation to ensure that its users have the ability to learn information about all candidates. Seeing multiple views is especially important with regard to politics when undisputed facts are difficult to obtain and mudslinging among candidates is ubiquitous. This will allow constituents to make educated decisions regarding who represents them and the types of policies they wish to have implemented. This is of course assuming that politicians will follow through with their promises to the public.
Next, reflect on the subject of religion. This is one of the most passionate areas of interest for millions or people. Religion inherently instills deeply rooted sets of beliefs in its practitioners. Due to this fact, it is likely that there will be misunderstandings among people who hold different religious beliefs. Hatred and violence can stem from these misunderstandings, which has been made evident from the countless wars and deaths attributed to religious differences throughout history. It is for these reasons that Google has a utilitarian ethical obligation to give equal display of different religions and religious information. In doing so, people will have access to information of different religions which will create a better understanding of others. This will serve the greater good by ultimately improving the world by decreasing the number of misunderstandings, which in turn lowers fear, hate, and violence.
Without a doubt, there are certain topics that search engines should prioritize when it comes to balancing results. By doing so, the companies will be ethically sound from a utilitarian perspective. Shedding light on all sides of controversial issues will ultimately serve the greater good for society and for the company because it will attract more users who appreciate the company’s efforts.
Utilitarian Ethics Applied to Page Labeling
As of 2000, 9 out of 10 children in the U.S have Internet access at school and/or at home. 11 It seems inevitable that if current trends continue, this ratio will keep rising. Children are quickly becoming the most Internet-savvy members of the household. Naturally, children of today will quickly become the most informed and technologically advanced generation to date. Children can access information on nearly any topic that sparks their curiosity.
The implications of this are profound. The people who control the distribution of this information can, therefore, control much of what our future generations will learn and how they will think. Computers and the Internet are becoming increasingly more user friendly, which has greatly contributed to the increased use of the Internet by younger children. Many of these kids still believe in Santa Clause and the Easter Bunny, so what is to keep them from believing everything they see or read on the Internet?—filters and labels. At the same time, assuming that children are the only ones who believe everything they find on the Internet would be a terribly naïve statement. Wikipedia is a widely accepted source of information even among many college students, and it often is pulled up as the first web page on a Google or Yahoo! search. In fact, Wikipedia is an interactive encyclopedia which can be edited by anyone and often contains incomplete and/or incorrect information. The implications and potential impacts of this are quite serious.
For these reasons it is imperative that search engines start labeling the pages that they return for searches. Too often, blogs and editorials are accepted as fact and quality factitious pages are overlooked or disappear into the millions of other pages returned on a search. If one is to type the word “government” into a Google search, over 450,000,000 pages are brought up. The first, of course, is a Wikipedia page. It is followed shortly thereafter by the U.S. government page, Ben’s Guide to U.S. Government for Kids, and the Fedworld Homepage. 12 None of these is labeled as fact, fiction, or in any other way that would suggest the accuracy or legitimacy of the page.
It would take considerable resources on the part of Google and Yahoo! to implement this standard, but from the utilitarian stance it is the right thing to do. Redistributing a small portion of their billions of dollars in revenue could improve the information gathering process and positively affect the future of the world and how we perceive it. Google already monitors and checks many of the pages affiliated with it using software and limited employee oversight— adding a labeling component is not an irrational next step. Academic databases such as Business Source Premier and PROMT are set up so searches can be filtered—only returning peer reviewed articles, or editorials, or academic journals—whatever the user is looking for. Implementing similar technologies into the major search engines will greatly benefit everyone who uses them. It could help to eliminate confusion as to what is fact versus opinion versus pure fiction and could lead to better-educated citizens and more effective information gathering procedures for all users.
Despite and because of the competitive, profit-seeking nature of this industry, some awareness is being raised, probing into the ethical implications and limitations of search engine usage. One such effort was a conference held by Santa Clara University’s Markkula Center for Applied Ethics and the Center for Science, Technology and Society, entitled “The Ethics and Politics of Search Engines.” The event boasted a panel of top academics in the fields of ethics and computing as well as Peter Norvig, the director of research for Google. 13 According to the New York Times, Mr. Norvig stated all the reasons Google feels they are being responsible saying that the company is “innocent of wrongdoing.” However, he failed to address the questions posed as to new ethical dilemmas pertaining to information control arising and how the company plans to deal with these. He restated mission statement after mission statement— without actually revealing solutions. For the full transcription of this event please visit the Santa Clara Markkula Center for Applied Ethics web page.
A second effort to help guide the search engine industry came from WebSeed.com. WebSeed.com describes itself as “a catalyst in an industry in dire need of change,” 14 and its promotion is “independent information for thinking people.” 15 The organization in recent years released the Search Engine Code of Ethics which sought to “establish a set of ground rules to be followed by companies who offer search engine submitting or ranking improvement services.” 16 The code emphasizes the importance of search engines returning information based on quality and relevance as opposed to traditional “brute force” submission techniques. Though well-intentioned, the Search Engine Code of Ethics seems to have been widely overlooked, and companies have opted to pick and choose their own company standards.
Clearly, the Internet is an amazing information tool that creates a world of possibilities. A molecular chemist who researches yeast’s metabolic processes with a computer in Antarctica can be using the same information as a vodka maker in Northern Siberia. Both of them retrieve this information by typing keywords into a search engine. This means the engine and the company that runs it is becoming a gatekeeper of information. This gatekeeper has ethical responsibilities to society based on the utilitarian, contractual and deontological ethical frameworks. The responsibility is to return as accurate and useful information as possible. The best method for determining accuracy and utility is page labeling. The responsibility also extends to the return of multiple viewpoints on divisive issues. The most effective steps toward honoring this responsibility is for search engines to take a portion of their operating budget and dedicate it to software or employees capable of bringing search engines up to speed with their ethical duty as newly found information gatekeepers.
Search engines recognize their responsibility as a powerful information controller. They state their desire to return accurate and useful information, or be “like a good neighbor” with the information they provide. These statements imply an ethical contract between users and the engine. We admit that legally search engines do not have a contractual obligation to label the sites they return or to make sure divisive issues return results from multiple view-points. However, their stated objective leaves them ethically obligated to begin reviewing their indexed sites, labeling information and providing diverse views. These responsibilities carry over and can be looked at from a deontological perspective. That is, because search engines control access to such vast information, it is their duty to present useful, meaningful, labeled and fairly representative, information.
From a utilitarian perspective search engines are obligated to promote general welfare through their information distribution. Thus, a priority for the engines should be to provide all relevant perspectives equally on divided issues. These issues are ones that control the fate of our society’s advancement. Voters will make decisions about our society’s future based on the information available to them. Statistically, this means much of that information will be obtained through search engines. It would be impossible to provide completely “unbiased” information, therefore search engines should attempt to promote the general good by providing information from multiple sources about these issues. This will allow decision makers to be informed and should provide the greatest benefit to a democratic society.
The issue of site labeling can also be analyzed along utilitarian lines. Again, search engines need to promote the greatest good with their information distribution. Children are an example of those who will be critically affected by the information they learn from the sites they access through search engines. What is conveyed to them as fact will change the way they proceed through life. Labeling information to better educate children on academic or social issues is not the only concern. If information is not labeled, there is no way for most people to distinguish what information they should believe, commit to memory, and base their choices on.
This world is becoming one that is driven by technology and advancement. It is time to seriously evaluate who is behind the wheel.
Business Wire. “The Ethics and Politics of Search Engines.” 23 Feb. 2006. 10 Feb 2007. http://infotrac.galegroup.com/itw/infomark/71 0/704/2564890w 19/purl=rc1_PRS_0_A142445435&dyn=5!xrn_2_0_A142445435?sw_aep=coloboulder_busGoogle.com “Corporate Information: Google Milestones.” 2007. 23 Feb. 2007. http://www.google.com/corporate/history.html
Search Engine Watch. “U.S. Search Engine Rankings and Top 50 Web Rankings.” Jan. 2007. 10 Feb. 2007. http://searchenginewatch.com/showPage.html?page=3625081
Business Wire. “The Ethics and Politics of Search Engines.” 23 Feb. 2006. 10 Feb 2007. http://infotrac.galegroup.com/itw/infomark/71 0/704/2564890w 19/purl=rc1_PRS_0_A142445435&dyn=5!xrn_2_0_A142445435?sw_aep=coloboulder_bus5 Search Engine Watch. “U.S. Search Engine Rankings and Top 50 Web Rankings.” Jan. 2007. 10 Feb. 2007. http://searchenginewatch.com/showPage.html?page=3625081
6 Chapman, Glenn. Australian IT. “Google’s Billion Dollar Quarter.” 1 Feb. 2007. 10 Feb 2007. http://australianit.news.com.au/articles/
8 Google.com “Corporate Information: Google Milestones.” 2007. 23 Feb. 2007. http://www.google.com/corporate/history.html
9 About.com “About: Ethics Policy.” Sep. 2007. 5 Apr. 2007. http://about.com/gi/pages/ethics.htm
10 Search Engine Watch. “U.S. Search Engine Rankings and Top 50 Web Rankings.” Jan. 2007. 10 Feb. 2007.
11 Santa Clara University, Markkula Center for Applied Ethics. “The Ethics and Politics of Search Engines.” 27 Feb. 2006. 23 Feb 2007. http://www.scu.edu/ethics/publications/submitted/search-engine-panel.html
12 Google.com. Web Search for “Government.” 25 Feb. 2007. www.google.com
13 Business Wire. “The Ethics and Politics of Search Engines.” 23 Feb. 2006. 10 Feb 2007. http://infotrac.galegroup.com/itw/infomark/71 0/704/2564890w19/purl=rc1_PRS_0_A142445435&dyn=5 !xrn_2_0_A142445435?sw_aep=coloboulder_bus
14 PR Newswire. “Search Engine Code of Ethics Published by WebSeed.com.” 15 May 2000. 10 Feb. 2007. http://infotrac.galegroup.com/itw/infomark/711/704/2564890w19/purl=rc1_PRS_0_A62080761 &dyn=5 !xrn_4_ 0_A62080761?sw_aep=coloboulder_bus
15WebSeed.com. 2007. 23 Feb. 2007. www.webseed.com
16 PR Newswire. “Search Engine Code of Ethics Published by WebSeed.com.” 15 May 2000. 10 Feb. 2007. http://infotrac.galegroup.com/itw/infomark/711/704/
2564890w19/purl=rc1_PRS_0_A62080761 &dyn=5!xrn_4_ 0_A62080761 ?sw_aep=coloboulder_bus