Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Update: Google's religious "censorship" spreads?

About a week ago I made a post about Google's apparent concealment of suggestions for search terms about certain popular religions. A couple of people who work for Google (but not on Google's suggest feature) postulated that it may merely be an odd artifact the coding, some software bug, an algorithm error, etc. The last commenter said he spread the word around Google to get some answers...and now look at this new development:I hate to jump to conclusions, but it seems mighty suspicious that "Buddhists are" and "atheists are," the two terms I pointed out did have suggestions, now no longer do. Coincidence of another bug? Or has someone at Google been reading my blog post?

Would someone at Google like to explain what's going on? If Google is choosing to hide these search suggestions, I don't necessarily think it's a bad thing. They're not censoring the search results themselves, and as a private company they can do whatever they wish. I'm more curious behind Google's rationale on deciding what doesn't return a suggestion. Or if this does turn out to be some odd bug, why the heck is it acting so suspiciously?

EDIT: A reader makes an interesting comment that searching for many nationalities also fails to return suggestions. Try "Italians are" or "Mexicans are." Seems this may by a wider attempt not to offend. Though "Greeks are" does return stuff; blatant discrimination against me!!!*

*Joking. Obviously.


  1. I still think you're being way too conspiracy-minded about this. It doesn't make any sense for this to be true. Why are they going by half-measures? Why not censor all the other offensive suggestions noted in your last post? The phrase "Muhammad is " still returns tons of offensive results. They are not winning any kudos from the muslim community, nor anyone else.

    At the same time, it directly contradicts past statements AND actions.

    Witness the Michelle Obama "monkey picture" which is the top result when you do an image search for "michelle obama". They refuse to take the picture down, although the culture there could be said to be more "left-leaning" than anything. They've had similar controversies in the past, and stood their ground.

    Official statements from Google:
    "The beliefs and preferences of those who work at Google, as well as the opinions of the general public, do not determine or impact our search results."

    "Accordingly, we do not remove a page from our search results simply because its content is unpopular or because we receive complaints concerning it."

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  3. Er, I forgot to mention that I understand these are search "suggestions" and not "results" per se, but censoring the suggestions is still against the spirit of their own rules and past conduct. All normal search results are, after all, "suggestions" by Google's algorithm as to where you are most likely to find the content you're looking for. They function similarly to the actual suggestions feature.

  4. Heh. I tried playing around with some of these...then, inspired by some of the comments on the first Google post, tried out "Google is ".

    First suggestion? "Google is Skynet." =P

  5. Coming from a programming and web development background, I don't think a coding "glitch" with this specific effect is even possible. The most likely result of such a glitch would be the lack of suggestions for ALL words, not just some, and not just ones which could be highly controversial.

    My first thought on your original post was that Google maintains a blacklist of phrases to ban from auto-suggest. Suggestion implies support (you don't suggest a restaurant to a friend unless you know the food is good), so it makes sense that Google would want to distance itself from certain things. Considering the potential for harm that comes from religious fanaticism, I'm not surprised they'd draw the line there.

    I don't think that such a list exists is necessarily a bad thing, but the implementation needs to be precise. If you're going to ban certain religion-based or anti-religious phrases, you should ban all of them.

  6. I noticed that the phrases also don't produce suggestions:

    islam is
    christians are
    muslims are

    However, the phrase, "mormons are", does produce suggestions. There doesn't seem to be a coherent pattern. I'm not convinced of any malfeasance either.

  7. Don't get anything for "the spaghetti monster is . . ." either.


  8. "wiccans are" returns:

    wiccans are satanists
    wiccans are losers
    wiccans are fat

    perhaps there is a mandate to avoid offending only the large religions?

  9. Protip:

    If you try "Why are XXXXXX", then you get a bunch of suggestions. It works with 'athesits', 'christians', 'muslims', 'mexicans' and 'greeks'. (Those are the ones I've tried so far). So it might just be a bug or something, you people are being a bit too paranoid.

  10. Why even bother censoring? If those are really the most popular search terms according to Google's algorithm, one could argue that censoring them is only covering up a larger problem.

  11. Don't forget, the "bug" could be that it's not censoring MORE than it's already doing...

    Eh, in all honesty I'd rather not speculate until they make a statement about this. I don't approve of censorship of any kind, but this is just search suggestions - if they were actually censoring search results, I'd be much more worried.

  12. When I type in just "atheists" I get a number of suggestions such as:

    -for Jesus
    -in foxholes
    -in America
    -of Florida

    So maybe it's just certain phrases it doesn't have suggestions for rather than a case of "censorship".

  13. I think that not only is there nothing wrong with this, but it's a good thing. Their business is getting people to the results page and thus, the ads. While they obviously shouldn't censor the results, the main page is a different story. Offending people could send them away from the page, and while the results pages are obviously not Google's content, someone unfamiliar with how suggestions work could mistake them for suggestions by Google itself. I know I'd head to Yahoo if I thought the previous post's suggestions for "atheists are" were Google's, rather than users'.

  14. If you type in "atheism is", you still get results. You also get results if you type "buddhism is".

    I don't know how the others would suddenly disappear, but we'll see how long those ones last.

  15. this is quite strange.

    if I type in "nigg", I get "niggersniggersniggers" (2210 results)

    if I type in "nigge" I get nothing.

  16. It seems to me that it's not entirely impossible that it is some sort of coding glitch. For example, maybe they calculate how often a phrase is searched for relative to the number of times it was suggested, and that through accident or design if people often enter a term (triggering suggestions) but rarely perform an actual search using the suggestions then it decides the suggestions must all be bad and ceases to generate any more suggestions for that phrase. So when you post saying 'try typing in "buddhists are" and "atheists are"' and lots of people go to check by doing that, and without actually submitting a search, they unwittingly teach Google that those are bad phrases to make suggestions on too!

    Do I think that's actually what happened? Probably not, but I wouldn't be terribly surprised if it was something like that. When you try to write clever algorithms (and Google do like their clever algorithms) you can end up with surprising results!