January 31, 2009

Google Glitches -- But World Doesn't End!

Greetings. In answer to numerous queries, I'm been working to pin down the situation with the Google search results glitch this morning (which for a brief period tagged all sites as potentially harmful) and Google's updated blog entry seems very specific as to the cause -- human error that resulted in "/" being treated as a valid "blacklist" table entry, which expanded to all URLs.

I suspect that many of us have run into this type of programming problem ourselves over the years, though presumably not visible on such a large stage. Google fixed the problem rapidly.

I'm still getting reports of Gmail messages supposedly being incorrectly categorized as "potentially dangerous" (based on internal URLs) during approximately the same period as the search results issue, but I do not at this time have independent confirmation of this problem, nor of any specific linkage to the search results glitch. [ Update: A Gmail spam filter problem has now been confirmed by Google -- affected messages should be rolled back to inboxes within a day or so. ]

There has been considerable confusion about the relationship between StopBadware.org and Google, and who is responsible for which aspects of the blacklist in question. The current version of the Google blog entry noted above now correctly describes the situation (the error in question originating on Google).

While this obviously was not a trivial event, I might note that the world did not come to an end. People were able to search on other than Google if they wished, and if there were any incorrectly categorized Gmail messages, they were safely quarantined and available for later viewing.

This does demonstrate that even the best run of large, complex information platforms are potentially subject to relatively simple errors (or complex errors for that matter) that can have broad impact. However, while this Google glitch was a minor annoyance to users and presumably somewhat embarrassing for Google, life goes on.

Contrary to those observers who incorrectly assert that Google is a "monopolist," there were plenty of alternatives available for users during the span of the Google problem.

But for an interesting thought experiment, imagine the impact if something like this had happened with a government-mandated filtering and blocking system that would affect all related ISPs by law, as is being implemented in some countries. Now that's something to worry about.


Posted by Lauren at January 31, 2009 11:57 AM | Permalink
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