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Google Algorithm Provides Offensive Search Suggestions

Calls to censor Google's autocomplete algorithm have been flooding in after a blogger typed in the words 'Jews should' to Google, and was met with some offensive and derogatory remarks

By: Emily Brewes
Published: October 23rd, 2013 in Business » World
Google Screenshot

Inspired by an ad campaign created by UN Women, Algemeinger blogger Eli Federman typed "Jews should" into Google's search bar and was taken aback by the list of suggested searches, such as "Jews should forget about the Holocaust" or "Jews should apologize for killing Jesus." The UN Women campaign features screenshots of suggested completions for the search term "women should" - such as "women should be slaves" - and places the captured search bar over the mouth of a woman's photograph.

According to Google's website, the “Autocomplete predictions are algorithmically determined based on a number of factors (including popularity of search terms) without any human intervention.” And, while Google does attempt to moderate results by applying, "a narrow set of removal policies for pornography, violence, hate speech, and terms that are frequently used to find content that infringes copyrights," there are those who are demanding a decisive response regarding anti-Semitic search suggestions.

“Google may be violating its own policies by not excluding these flagrantly anti-Semitic search queries,” Federman said, quoting the company’s own policies page. However, he insists that censorship is not the answer. “The best answer to false speech and hate speech is not censorship, it is truthfulness. Exposing the truth that anti-Semitism and sexism are alive and well is a good thing."

While the autocomplete suggestions are certainly offensive, perhaps the more disturbing aspect of this story is that they are popular enough to come up at all. In this day and age, we tend to assume that such flagrant bigotry is a thing of the past, making reminders of its continued existence stand out that much more sharply.

Rabbi Abraham Cooper, Associate Dean at the Simon Wiesenthal Center, said he hoped the discovery would “wake up everyone in our community to understand how much effort bigots and racists put into the internet,” but did not absolve Google of their "responsibility" to "take a look at their system or remove the entire (autocomplete) service from the users.”

“The issue of hate on the internet is global and is growing and is a big concern,” said Deborah Lauter, a Civil Rights Director at the Anti-Defamation League, pointing out that this issue is not confined to one search engine, or one group. Similar results can be repeated using search giants Yahoo and Bing, as can entering searches for any other persecuted group, such as members of the LGBT community or African-Americans.

Ms. Lauter went on to say, “We will certainly flag it for them and we hope that they will be responsive,” and added, “Our hope is that the community, and anyone that sees these results will similarly flag it because the companies want to see communities engaged in the fight.”

This isn't the first time Google has taken heat over its autocomplete function. Last year PC Mag reported about six anti-defamation groups in France who sued the company for "unintentionally breaking the law with its suggested search results that offered ‘unsolicited and almost systematic association’ of the word ‘Jew’ with well-known politicians, media personalities and business people." The firm faced similar difficulties in 2009 when two companies claimed to have been defamed by searches that associated their names with the word "scam".

“[Google is] as overwhelmed by this as we are,” Ms. Lauter stated, “and they are looking for thoughtful solutions.”

Related articles: Google, Autocomplete, Algorithm, Jewish News, anti-Semitism, Technology News
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