June 25, 2007

A Most Remarkable Google Page: Toward Search Dispute Resolutions

Greetings. There's a fascinating and apparently singular page on Google that you've probably never seen. In the normal course of searching on Google you'd only find it if you followed an unusual "sponsored link" -- sponsored by Google itself -- above the regular search results for a single, very ancient word. The page URL itself is nondescript and seemingly generic, but the contents are remarkable, for they are explicitly a blanket apology for many of the query results returned for that one very specific short word. Here is the page.

Search on the same word at Yahoo or AltaVista, and you won't find a similarly placed explanation or apology, even though the search results are similar.

The laudable presence of this Google explanatory page makes explicit an acknowledgment by Google that search results can have real impact on real people, and that the referenced Web sites in these results may at times be misleading, defamatory, or otherwise seriously damaging to actual lives.

In two previous recent items:

Search Engine Dispute Notifications: Request For Comments

Extending Google Blacklists for Dispute Resolutions

I discussed some issues related to the possible ways in which search engines could help mitigate the impact of serious "attacking" misinformation on Web pages referenced by search results. In my view, the key aspect of this problem is finding a way to empower people who are being seriously demeaned, defamed, threatened, or otherwise attacked by specific Web sites -- sites and pages that are frequently beyond the targets' financial or jurisdictional ability to impact, even with court orders in hand. Real people, real lives.

It's known that search research is increasingly looking at how human input beyond inter-page linking activities can be usefully harnessed toward improving the relevance of search results, and it can be reasonably argued that such mechanisms may also be useful to help deal with serious Web site abuse, with distributed, virtual community input as a particularly intriguing possible approach.

I do not view such postulated Web dispute resolution mechanisms -- which I have broadly termed "dispute links" -- as a means for furthering arguments between creationists and evolutionists, political battles, or other "general" disagreements. Rather, the threshold for activating such systems would likely be fairly high, and focused on very specific attacks -- especially on individuals.

Ultimately, we must consider whether the status quo, where the targets of serious, life-ruining Web-based attacks are often essentially impotent to effectively respond, is an ethically acceptable situation. Will our ethical systems rule the machines, or will we allow the machines to reduce our lives to the lowest common denominator of automaton-like, void existence?

To be sure, these are complex matters, and if anyone tells you that they have simple answers for such questions, you're either talking to a lier or a fool. Even setting forth the fundamental precepts toward solving such problems is very difficult. Workable, possible solutions will be philosophically and technically challenging. I won't even try to offer my take on the more technical details here -- I have a white paper in progress that I'll offer to the community for dissection and possible evisceration as soon as possible.

In the meantime, it might be wise to muse more on that Google page noted above. For it tells us very plainly that among major search engines, Google understands that Search Results Matter. They matter now to everyone who uses the Web, and even to people who don't have Internet access at all -- but whose lives are impacted by the Web nonetheless. And that's the entire population of the planet.

The Web, after all, isn't really computers and routers, fiber and spinning disk arrays, databases and blogs. The Web is people. Our job now is to find the path toward helping make sure that the power of Web search enhances people's lives while not incidentally creating asymmetric opportunities for seriously damaging innocent lives in the process.

Even though a single search query word is explicitly referenced by that Google explanation page, Google has with that very clear published text already gone a step beyond other search engines in its acknowledgment of search impacts.

It therefore seems reasonable for the community to look toward Google, as the industry leader in search technology, to also be a leading force at forging that path toward the next steps -- the route that will help keep search engines as tools to benefit us all, while preventing that technology from being perverted by outside players for evil purposes.

It's really that important.


Posted by Lauren at June 25, 2007 06:59 PM | Permalink
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