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10/28/2003 Archived Entry: "Watching Google and Google Watch"

Okay...can someone spare me the embarrassment of having to ask my husband, "How is this done?"

Interesting email received [a few weeks ago but still as relevant] from Scott M, who writes, "I've had news.google.com as my browser home page since it was first published. It was a fantastic thing for a busy professional to see headline events lumped and summed in a rational, and one supposed, value-neutral fashion. Over time, though, I have been seeing and hearing evidence that calls that assumption of objectivity into question.

"There have been articles in IT trade press on secrecy about how Google News and the Google search engine itself work. Now protecting any trade secrets that have made the Google tools into market leaders would certainly be both understandable and justifiable, but the articles appear to point up the kind of secrecy typically invoked to avoid examination of motivation. There has been past controversy over whether the Google process for gathering search finds allows construction of sites specifically to increase the probability of Google hits. There has also been a recent scandal of sorts regarding the click-through ad payment scheme where Google management has cut off some site owners for allegedly padding click counts in ways that violate the applicable contract, but has refused to supply details to those owners, and by cutting them off has prevented them from accessing the very evidence that would prove or disprove the allegations. Any internet icon such as Google is naturally going to attract controversy and criticism, deserved or not. Unfortunately, my own observations have tended to confirm alleged "strangeness". Over the past several months, I have noticed a pattern when comparing the articles making front page headlines (arranged by subject) with advanced Google News searches on key word or words describing that subject. One would expect that in the case of an objective distillation, the appearance of a main page headline group would reflect the number of recent stories on the subject, and that the headline selected to represent the group would reflect the majority "slant" of that group of stories. Google's methods for determining the presentation of this information is of course secret. My unscientific conclusion is that someone is manually manipulating selected items to satisfy some concealed agenda of their own, or of some person or group they hope to please. For example, at the beginning of the Iraq "postwar" period, a subject group would commonly appear under a headline that was counter to the Bushie neo-con take on the issues. On the next refresh of the main page, that headlined story would get buried in favor of one that was administration-friendly, and that set up would last for a day or two (the typical persistence of a subject group) On examination of the articles composing the group, however, it appeared that a large majority conformed with the viewpoint expressed in the original headline. I tracked this apparent phenomenon several times on both the Iraq war and the domestic totalitarian initiative popularly known as the Patriot Act. Each time the results were similar. Now I see indications that the very presence of subject groups on the main page are perhaps being screened. Between the weekend and Monday, I noticed that suddenly subject groups about Iraqi resistance to occupation were absent. That struck me as odd, since these had been a fairly constant feature for a month or more. This morning, wondering if the source media themselves had been cast under some kind of pall by Ashcroft & company, I went to the advanced page and did a search for articles published in the last 24 hours containing "iraq". There were 2870 hits. Since the Israeli attack on Syria has rightly been much in the news over that span, I modified my search to exclude "syria". There were still 2500 hits over 24 hours, many of which concerned a very recent mortar attack on the Iraqi Foreign Service HQ in Bagdad. I think the newsworthiness of that event speaks for itself. Could I be mistaken about Google? Sure. It is in my nature to be suspicious of those wielding power, whether they be agents of the State, or owners of popular services in an ubiquitous medium. I've even been described with the "P" word more than once;>) But I am confident enough in my analysis to move my own web searches to another site. "www.moma.com" has been suggested to me by a colleague.

"On the subject of misbehavior by web power brokers, I don't know if you saw that about 2 weeks ago Joseph Sullivan, the IT security chief for eBay, was cited to be bragging about how cooperative his employer was in supplying information about eBay subscribers to the DOJ, going beyond the scope of what was requested, and nearly never requiring search warrants or any other pesky instruments of due process. That would be scary enough if Sullivan had not been quoted making similar noises many months ago. One outburst of that kind could be written off (but not excused) to an overabundance of enthusiasm in connecting with his audience (law enforcement in one instance, IT security professionals in the other. IIRC) But two such utterances that far apart, with no public disavowal by eBay, leads one to conclude that this is indeed the official eBay position on the subject. Scary. So that's two internet
icons with which I have decided to part company. I don't know where this bridge burning will ultimately lead me, but unfortunately I doubt that this is the end of it."

Hmm...time to check out Google Watch which offers "A look at how Google's monopoly, algorithms, and privacy policies are undermining the Web." The site lists the reasons why it has targeted Google, which is -- by far! -- the dominant search engine on the Internet. Those reasons (sans the explanatory comments that I've deleted for space considerations):
1. Google's immortal cookie
2. Google records everything they can
3. Google retains all data indefinitely
4. Google won't say why they need this data
5. Google hires spooks
6. Google's toolbar is spyware
7. Google's cache copy is illegal
8. Google is not your friend
9. Google is a privacy time bomb

Like I said...hmm.

Best to all,

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