Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Google's religious censorship: the double standard

Anyone who has used Google before knows that when you start typing a phrase, Google will start suggesting searches for you based on common searches of other people. This can be useful, and it can also lead to some pretty wacky stuff popping up sometimes. But what happens when you combine religion and Google's search suggestions? Let's take a look at some major world religions:Wow, a lot of negative and critical stuff being searched, huh? Because I'm an equal opportunity offender, let's throw in atheism too, even though it's technically not a religion (though apparently most searchers don't understand that).
But wait, what about Islam? Did I just forget about them? Nope - there's just nothing to show.
Yep. Google censors the search "Islam is," presumably so negative phrases don't pop up. Apparently it's okay to criticize other religions - but Islam? Oh ho ho, nooooo, we're not opening that can of worms.

But maybe no one is searching for "Islam is," and that's why we don't see it. Let's take a look at the number of search results per term:

"Christianity is" - 2,600,000
"Judaism is" - 486,000
"Hinduism is" - 270,000
"Buddhism is" - 550,000
"Atheism is" - 548,000
"Islam is" - 14,400,000

Yes, even though "Islam is" has the most search results, it offers no search suggestion.

Maybe this is an isolated case. What happens if we look at a similar type of search term?
Huh, looking pretty empty around here. I guess this goes with the old "Respect the person, not the idea" mantra that I support. As long as Google does that for all of the groups...
Well...okay, I guess none of those things are really bad things...
Aaanndd never mind. Guess it's still okay to pick on the ickle atheists, but not anyone else.

Let's look at the search results:

"Christians are" - 2,600,000
"Jews are" - 7,880,000
"Muslims are" - 1,890,000
"Hindus are" - 268,000
"Buddhists are" - 95,300
"Atheists are" - 390,000

Again, an odd little correlation. Two of the terms with the lowest amount of search results are the ones that actually show search suggestions. It's obvious Google is covering its ass and trying not to offend religious users - and you know what, as a company they have that right. And as long as they're not censoring the actual results (which seems true, looking at the number of search results), that's okay with me. But I think this really illustrates the attitude that surrounds criticizing religion.

We've gotten to the point where it's okay to criticize everything but Islam - which is a better than not being able to criticize religion at all - but we shouldn't be putting Islam on a special pedestal. We can't be bullied into silence through threats and incidents like the Muhammad cartoons, because that only gives them even more power. Even something as simple as Google being afraid to highlight the searches of others (not their own personal views) shows how strongly people can fear criticizing Muslims.

And as for the search terms about individuals? I personally don't think Google should censor anything, as it leaves silly loop holes like this. It shows which groups scare them the most - the ones with the most power - rather than any sort of logical, uniform censoring system. I don't think Google hates atheists, but rather that they realize we won't flip our shit at a couple of nasty search terms. It just all seems a bit ridiculous, really.

(Hat tip to Reddit for finding this)


  1. Definitely some intriguing results, there. (I originally thought this was your own investigative work, Jen, until I noticed the hat tip. Sorry, no cookie for you. ;-P)

    Personally, though, I wouldn’t look at these and immediately conclude that this is censorship; for all we know, it’s perfectly possible, albeit unlikely, that this is merely the result of harmless glitches and coding quirks that no-one either knows about (until now, anyway), nor are bothered enough to fix. But, innocent or not, it is suspicious and could warrant further investigation, if only to satisfy my (and, no doubt, others’) curiosity. I’d be particularly interested to hear if any coding experts – or better yet, actual Google techs or representatives – have any remarks to give on this little “quirk”.

  2. This is a nice bit of statistics. It's hard to argue with numbers, isn't it?

  3. Joe,

    Hey, reddit pointed out that "Islam is" returned no searches, I googled everything else and looked up the numbers. Give me some credit for the dirty work ;)

  4. Hey good research Jen, now get some rest for your mono.

  5. @Jen:
    Oops, my bad. Okay, half a cookie to you, then. It’s got M&Ms. =)

  6. @BeamStalk I'm sitting on my ass in front of my computer. Not sure how much more rest I can get. =P

    Also, one of the side affects of the steroids is trouble sleeping, so I'm ironically awake right now.

  7. Oddly enough I noticed the same thing not long ago, at least in connection with Google searches on "atheism is", "christianity is", and "islam is". I don't remember what else I looked at; I was trying to run down the significance of the phrase "atheism is dead", which some writer was using in a sense that was puzzling to me. The censor cuts in the minute the second "s" is typed in the phrase "Islam is", no matter what the sense of the following letters may be. The numbers on the search results are very revealing. Nice job.

  8. On a side-note, Google also appear to have blocked "I hate..." -- perhaps they're just trying to keep the peace. Who knows!

  9. Try "muhammad is". They didn't catch everything, yet.

  10. This is my favorite of google popular searches:

  11. Google censors things? As representative of glorious and supreme People's Republic of China, this is news I find very shocking. Surely Google, friend of the Communist Party, would never issue a censorship based on their lust for pure capitalist profits.

  12. Google is really run by OBL. That explains everything

  13. (1) This isn't censorship.
    Google suggest isn't a public forum- it's the voice of Google, and it's entirely reasonable for google to avoid saying some things (if that is what's happening here, who knows). It's no more censorship than me deciding not to tell my neighbor his mother's a whore. If this was a conscious decision, they're a business, and avoiding hate speech or things which damage the brand is just good business.

    (2) You have a sampling bias.
    Try google suggest for "lutherans are", "protestants are", "jains are" or "scientologists are". I'm sure there are more.

    (3) You don't know what's going on here.
    Nor do I. It's a computer program somebody at Google wrote. It may not even be intentional-- it may be a side effect of something entirely unrelated... who knows. While interesting, don't cry "Censorship!" with righteous indignation.

    Disclaimer: I work for Google. Not on google suggest though, and I have no idea how any of that works. This is certainly not an official statement.

  14. Eric, thanks for your insight as someone who actually works for Google. I tried to make it clear in my post that I think, as a business, Google has every right to do this. I was just trying to use it as a broader illustration of how people and companies tread around religious topics.

    If you know anyone who works on Google suggest who can shed some light on the issue (if it's just a coding thing, like you and others have suggested), that would be wonderful.

  15. you really need to add comment moderation to your blasphemy

    how we demolished the entire atheist movement....


  16. Shit. Jen, looks like insane fuckbag David Markuze/Mabus has found your blog. Pray he doesn’t give you the sort of migraine he gives PZ and others.

    This might be a good time to start thinking about checking out other commenting platforms to integrate with this blog, which include the ability to ban trolls and spammers with the click of a button. Just in case.

  17. When was the last time you criticized Islam the same way you criticize Christianity?

  18. 'Islam hates' returns some interesting suggestions

  19. @Anonymous

    When was the last time Islam pretended it was the national religion of the United States? While I agree with you that she seems to have a bias against Christianity, I would argue that stems primarily from Christianity's constant, unwanted presence in her daily life. (Since a blog is a type of journal, wouldn't she write about things she is familiar with?) Islam is not nearly as common in the United States, so she probably has less contact with it and other religions.

    Anyway, interesting work, Jen. Whether or not this is just a glitch, I think it shows how people, as you said, tiptoe around religion. I remember a friend of a friend was practically in tears when Dawkins spoke at IU. She said it was hurtful and rude to hear him spouting "hate speak" at Christians. I asked her how she would have reacted if he had been a Christian speaker saying muslims or homosexuals were going to hell. She didn't really reply. Hmm...

  20. Eeps. Bad idea, indeed. Try "Mormons are". I've got plenty of bad things to say about LD$, Inc., but it's unfair that other religions get special protection.

    Better to just leave it wide open.

  21. Heh, try "religious people are", though. That's not so bad :D

  22. Eh.. As some one else who works at Google, we have to deal with so many mountains of data that no body ever "hand-maintains" anything (well.. except for dealing CP or the like -- and even those are relatively automated). If a particular system behaves in some way, it most probably is because of some quirk in the training data, a particular wellknown behaviour or a bug. The code base is so huge that people talk about bottom-up "evolving" the code rather than top-down "redesigning" code and as with all evolutionary process, interesting side effects creep in all the time.

    These are my own views and not Google's.

  23. Jen, try "muslim is" instead of "islam is" to get similar results to the rest of the religions. It seems most searchers still confuse the two.

  24. As selfification said above, this is almost certain to be a software bug and not actually censorship.

    I've spread the word a bit internally at Google about this blog post. Hopefully someone can figure out where the algorithms are going wrong. Thanks for shedding light on the issue so clearly!

  25. To all the Google people who are trying to get to the bottom of this: thanks! If you figure out what's going on, email me ( and I'll make sure to make a follow up post. I don't want to spread misconceptions about Google if it's just a weird coding glitch. On the flip side, if this *is* some sort of policy Google has, I'd love to know their official stance on it.

  26. This revelation about Google does make me feel quite sick to my stomach...

  27. Let's not be too hasty. It sounds pretty weird/hypocritical after that whole ordeal about refusing to take down the popular image of Michelle Obama depicted as an ape. That's a decision I agree with, but it does look like they might've backpedaled somewhat.

    However, there could be an explanation; they're a good company at heart, so we should at least give them a chance before pointing fingers. It's hard to believe they block that solely in deference to Muslim sensitivities, but not this:

    I'm sure they're sensitive about Islam in general, but they threaten you if you graphically depict Muhammad in a *positive* light. E.g. naming a child's teddy bear after him. It's unlikely they didn't notice this and/or are putting up with it if they won't put up with "Islam is"...

  28. Google has noted this. Now, "christiandom is", "judaism is" give no results also.

    Thanks, bbavar.

  29. Well, I've tried it in spanish and it works the same way.

    However, the "Atheists are" filter only shows a suggestion, which is "Atheists are more intelligent". "Jews are" is completely censored, while christians are 'depicted' as fanatics and muslims as terrorists.

  30. Now, "atheists are " offers no suggestions...

  31. Hey, I would like to be able to search google easier. And I like googles search engine a lot better than yahoo. After I get a search results page, either I am going to click on a link or go to the next page. It gets old having to navigate my mouse down to the tiny buttons at the bottom of the screen to go to the next page. I was wondering if it was possible to make the whole white part of the screen a button to go to the next page. A huge invisible button. Got a few other ideas...