minutia press.
A little disappointed at Google

There has been press lately about a site that shows up when the search phrase "Jew" is given to Google. I won't link to that site for fear of increasing its hittitude, but perhaps you know the site I mean.

In any case, there seems to be confusion about 1st amendment rights here. That right is for publishers to publish without reasonable restriction from the government. Google can post ads if they wish, use any means they like to rank sites, and they could also refuse to include certain sites in their results if they wished. This is their right; the sites themselves have no "right" to appear on Google.

Google has refused to derank the offensive site I imly above, and this is their right, but they could decide to eliminate the site altogether from their results. My guess is that Google doesn't want to be plied with these kinds of requests, so their official stance is "we have our algorithms and they do what they do" but I am hoping unofficially they will take steps to derank the site.


I disagree. As offensive as the site may be, who is Google to say whether I can or cannot see it? In my opinion, to censor a webpage simply because we do not agree with its content is equally as bad as hate speech.

When I search Google, I want to get a true idea of what is out there on the web. If I search for "Jew" and discover that the highest ranking site is a hate speech site, this might lead me to the sobering conclusion that anti-Semitism is much more prevalent in the world than I had realized.

Why should Google be allowed to deny me this realization, by painting a falsely optimistic, rainbows and bunny rabbits view of a world where anti-Semitism doesn't exist?

I want acess to all information, whether I agree with it or not. It's not Google's job to shelter me from the truth -- I want all of it, so that I might draw my own conclusions instead of being told what to think.

Posted by: light at April 15, 2004 8:53 PM

If the first site for the search "African American" or "blacks" was a hate site, you can bet that Google would take it down. Google has shown in the past that they are willing to not put sites up because of their views, or move them down in the rankings.

I agree with Prof. Cytron. Google should show some decency and not have a hate site at the top of the list.

I think it is easy to disregard sites that don't necessarily attack your own group of people. But it is a little different when a site attacks you, or someone close to you (in my case my girlfriend.)

Posted by: Nathan at April 15, 2004 9:44 PM

One point the Google explanation made that I think is important to note is that if you were truly curious about Judaism or Jews themselves, you wouldn't have typed "Jew" into the search box, but rather "Judaism" or "Jewish people." Most people don't call Jewish people "Jews" (even though we would call my ancestors Poles, not Polish people). Somewhere along the way, the word "Jew" apparently became a racial slur (on a side note, isn't the evolution of language an amazing thing?). Comparatively -- and unsurprisingly -- if you search for the n-word or "Pollock" on Google, you're going to find offensive material.

Not that anti-Semitism isn't a terrible problem, but I doubt it's as prevalent as Amy infers from the search results. (For example, you probably all know what comes up when you search for "miserable failure." But searching for "George Bush" will certainly yield different results.) I really don't think we should be equating Google to a factual resource such as a dictionary or encyclopedia, and I certainly don't think we should be using it as a scientific measure of popular opinion.

That said, I don't know how I feel about the fact that Google is keeping the site's rank. My first instinct is to agree with Amy, because of course I think more information is better than less. But I also don't know that keeping it as the highest-ranked site accurately reflects much of anything.

Posted by: Rachel at April 15, 2004 10:27 PM

I was not under the impression that "Jew" was a racial slur. I do not believe it is.

Posted by: Nathan at April 15, 2004 10:56 PM

I'd have to agree with Rachel and the American Heritage dictionary that the word "Jew" is mostly used in an offensive manner. See http://www.bartleby.com/61/75/J0037500.html for a much better explanation than this computer scientist could ever give. I can tell you that from my personal experiences of online gaming in servers with 13 year old Texans, the use of the word "Jew" as an insult was many times more prevalent than the infamous n-word.

Given that "Jew" is, at the very least, rather politically incorrect, I don't think people looking for information about Judaism are going do a Google search for "Jew." It'd be like doing a search for "Bible Thumper" when you were looking for more information about Christianity. Anyway, people should cut Google some slack because they're stuck between the proverbial rock and hard place, with the whole free speech vs decency vs censorship mess.

Posted by: jim at April 16, 2004 12:01 AM

I also don't think Google should have to police their search results. It's not like on Yahoo where the site paid to get a top spot, it was simply the result of their Pagerank algorithms. If these algorithms work, then eventually this site will be relegated to the scrap heap, replaced by more appropriate-to-the-search-term sites (although it's a good point that "Jew" has, indeed, become a racial slur unfortunately).

The real problem here is that because of all the free publicity, this site will most likely continue to stay at the top, since most people won't have the sense that Ron did and will actually link to it.

But to ask Google to police their search algorithms for questionable content is a slippery slope, as they say. Most likely nothing will come of this and people will soon forget it.

Posted by: Chris Hill Festival at April 16, 2004 12:12 AM

"I think it is easy to disregard sites that don't necessarily attack your own group of people."

I stand by my position no matter who the site attacks. No matter how close it hits to home, free speech is more important.

Posted by: light at April 16, 2004 2:22 AM

"...free speech is more important."

You realize, of course, that the first amendment is not universal. It does not apply in this case. Why, you ask? Because Google is not the government.

"Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances."

I didn't realize that Congress == Google. So Google can do whatever they want, in the name of decency, or in the name of whatever they want. Like I said earlier. Google has changed rankings around before. Why not now?

Posted by: Nathan at April 16, 2004 10:03 AM

Last time I checked, free speech wasn't a concept invented by Congress. A business such as Google can allow, limit or deny its own interpretation of "free speech" as it sees fit. I know it might be confusing to you, but just because you associate the term "free speech" with a Constitutional amendment doesn't mean it can't be used in other contexts. Amy could have easily used the term "free flow of information" and it would have had the same meaning.

I don't think Amy, or any of Dr. Cytron's mostly intelligent readers, needed a refresher course on the First Amendment, by the way.

Posted by: Rachel at April 16, 2004 10:29 AM

You're right, Nathan, Google doesn't *have* to stick to the first amendment. (If they did, this wouldn't be a controversy, now would it?) I am only arguing that it is right for them to follow the ideals expressed in the First Amendment.

Dr. Cytron believes that it would be better for them to intervene, and I totally respect that opinion.

I feel like you are getting very emotional about this. You've already said that it hits close to home for you. Just because I happen to disagree with you doesn't mean I'm making some sort of personal attack on your girlfriend. Can we please keep this civil?

Posted by: light at April 16, 2004 1:19 PM

I don't believe I said anything uncivil. People were talking about "free speech" in a context where I'm not sure that it is correct. I didn't ever take it as a personal attack on my girlfriend.

However, I'm still not sure that I agree that "Jew" is derogatory. I did some research, and it is very debatable if it is. All of the Jewish people I have talked to, though, say that Jew is NOT a derogatory term. In fact, a couple even said that they hate being called a "Jewish Person" or something along those lines. I do not claim for this to be a pervasive thought. Just my personal experiences.

I want everyone to know that I don't think anyone here is attacking Jews. I'm sure that none of you are bigoted. I just agree that Google should move it down in the rankings.

My main contention is that Google has adjusted rankings before. Why not now?

Posted by: Nathan at April 16, 2004 1:35 PM

Its easy to take google's position from a business perspective -- trying to filter out everything that anyone finds offensive would be a difficult task. (On the other hand, you don't need to filter out everything that people find offensive, just the ones that a large portion of your users find offensive.) Google has taken action -- leveraging their ad system to put up a disclaimer on those search results. However, I personally scan right over the ads at the top of the results page (there's a reason google's ads appear with a different background color) and I missed their "Offensive Search Results" link numerous times. Anyway, I suspect this particular implementation was chosen because it could most easily be put in place quickly. But while I think that their approach is probably correct, I'm none too happy about its implementation.

Google's position on this is that they maximize profits by giving accurate search results. If the image of them as the best, most accurate search site falters, they could lose income. Google is currently a privately held company so they can do whatever they like, but publicly held companies (and remember, google is contemplating an IPO right now, which factors into their business decisions) are obligated by statute to maximize shareholder value. So a corporate conscious can only choose the "right" thing if it doesn't impact their bottom line.

However, I do not personally support google's decision. No doubt this is why I would make a bad businessman, but I would let my morals dictate how I acted in this regard rather than my business sense.

Posted by: david at April 16, 2004 1:41 PM

Nathan, I think the issue here is one of context. "Jew" can be and has been used as a slur. In the hands of bigots, even the innocuous can become slurs. Western society has a pretty bad track record with the Jewish people, and there's a reason the Anti-Defamation League still exists.

Posted by: david at April 16, 2004 1:48 PM

I'll agree that some people use Jew in a derogatory term. Some people use woman in a derogatory term. I was talking to my mom about this, and she brought that up. She said "What, am I supposed to be called a 'female person?'". I don't think that it is so clear cut that Jew is a derogatory as opposed to other, much more obvious words.

Posted by: Nathan at April 16, 2004 1:54 PM

You have a point, but it's just that once some people use it in offensive ways, everyone becomes a little hesitant to use it in a normal context. Why don't people feel the same hesitation about "woman"? Who knows? Language is strange.

As for this: "My main contention is that Google has adjusted rankings before. Why not now?" -- Just because they've done it in the past doesn't mean I agreed with it then either. In my opinion they should not have altered rankings in the past, nor should they now. However, I understand that in some cases they adjusted rankings in order to comply with laws in various countries, which is a whole new can of worms.

I didn't mean to imply that you said anything uncivil, Nathan, I was only hoping to keep it that way. I think that everyone has pretty much expressed their opinion already, and I don't want to see this escalate into craziness. Dr. Cytron's site deserves better than that.

Speaking of which, I think I've said everything I need to say in this thread. No wait, one more thing: It's bugging the hell out of me that I misspelled "access" in my first comment and can't fix it. Ok, I am done now.

Posted by: light at April 16, 2004 2:30 PM

"My main contention is that Google has adjusted rankings before. Why not now?"

Because they haven't.

So far as I know, they only have adjusted rankings in response to people abusing the algorithms, especially for commercial purposes (ie SearchKing), and generally by tweaking the behavior of their algorithms. Otherwise, they have removed search results, but only after being threatened with legal action. Indeed, as they say in their own response to the controversy, "The only sites we omit are those we are legally compelled to remove or those maliciously attempting to manipulate our results."

Claiming that Google has adjusted rankings in the past for controversial search results is misleading, since Google does not and has not adjusted rankings in response to anything other than manupulative results. As far as removal, they do not remove "bad" results, unless they are legally required or the result is due to manipulation. Neither case applies here.

Posted by: joe at April 16, 2004 3:14 PM

"I didn't mean to imply that you said anything uncivil, Nathan, I was only hoping to keep it that way. I think that everyone has pretty much expressed their opinion already, and I don't want to see this escalate into craziness. Dr. Cytron's site deserves better than that."

So the advocate of free speech (with whom I initially agreed, by the way) is now advocating preemptive censorship for Prof. Cytron's website? Does anyone else see the irony here?

Posted by: Elaine at April 17, 2004 10:01 AM

I think she was just expressing the hope that things not get too emotional, which they obviously have.

I appreciate irony as much as the next guy, but I have a hard time seeing how the last comment could be viewed as anything but flamebait.

and yeah, I bit, if only to reiterate the plea for civility. this has been a great discussion, and we need to keep the closing remarks on topic.

Posted by: michael. at April 17, 2004 11:39 AM

Wow, I just caught up on all of this. I respect all of what's said here, and don't consider this site sacred. I value your comments whatever their content because you are bright people and I (and others who take the time to read this) learn from what you write.

I want to respond to the word "Jew" in a new post. What I was writing about Google is that they don't have to (in the sense of our constitution) show you every site, but I can see Amy/Rachels' point that we can trust them more if we know they are not messing with the display results.

And I would nevery think to deny that hate site the right to promote or publish their views.

Rather than take an editorial stance on any issue, Google opts to let others, by link-popularity, rank the sites they show.

A good defense would be for people on visible sites to create more links to a non-hate site for the term "Jew".

Posted by: rkc at April 17, 2004 3:59 PM