Jewish Journal

Is Google Really Racist?

by Sam Gliksman

February 23, 2010 | 9:18 am

There is a note on the notice-board at my workplace that accuses Google of being racist. Whenever you start typing in the Google search box an auto-complete feature drops down and suggests a list of related search terms. The notice-board note displays a screen shot of the search suggestions listed when you type “Judaism is” or Christianity is” into the Google search box. The suggestions are clearly racist and include terms such as “Judaism is false” and “Judaism is a “gutter religion”. In fact, the results are even worse if you type “Holocaust is” into the search box (”...is a hoax” for one). So is Google actually racist as the note suggests?.

The list of search “suggestions” is derived from an algorithmic analysis of the overall volume of searches related to a specific term. Does that imply then that the most popular search related to Judaism is “Judaism is a gutter religion”? No it doesn’t, although some would like you to believe that it is searched most often. Search suggestions can be manipulated - and there are those that would like to steer anyone with an interest in Judaism or Christianity to a certain set of skewed search results.

This is an example of the type of simple cyber attacks that have become very commonplace. Cyber terrorists realize that they can manipulate search engines by planting and spreading viruses that send large volumes of specific searches to Google servers, thereby making them “popular”. Google has very little to do with the compilation of the search suggestion lists. Having said that, I should however note that while Google is not directly responsible for any particular suggestion, it’s completely within their ability to remove offensive search suggestion and they should be pressured to do so. You may remember a controversy a couple of years ago related to the search term “holocaust”. The first site that was listed was a holocaust denial website. Google refused to alter the search results claiming that it would not get involved in “political” debates. After much pressure Google finally relented and removed the offensive listing.

One final footnote. Several weeks ago when testing the “Judaism is” search term in Google I also tried checking for “Islam is”. While searches for Judaism and Christianity returned offensive suggestions, searching for Islam did not - pointing an accusatory finger at the source of the cyber attacks. However if you try searching “Islam is” today, you’ll now find a similar list of offensive search terms. I’ll leave the moral judgements up to you.

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