It’s funny how a set of instructions – an algorithm – written by people can come to be granted, by those same people, a superhuman authority. As if a machine fashioned by man should, upon trembling into motion, shed its earthly origin and assume a god-granted imperium, beyond our small-minded questioning.
Last week, CNET’s Elinor Mills reported on how a web search for “Martin Luther King” returns, as its first result on Google and as its second result on Windows Live Search, a web site (martinlutherking.org) operated by a white supremacist organization named Stormfront. The site, titled “Martin Luther King Jr.: A True Historical Examination,” refers to King as “The Beast” and says he was “just a sexual degenerate, an America-hating Communist, and a criminal betrayer of even the interests of his own people.” The site also features an essay on “Jews & Civil Rights” by former Ku Klux Klan official David Duke.
What’s remarkable, though, is not that a search algorithm might be gamed by extremists but that the owners of the algorithm might themselves defend the offensive result – and reject any attempt to override it as an assault on the “integrity” of their system. AOL, because it subcontracts its search results to Google, finds itself in the uncomfortable position of promoting the white supremacist site to its customers. In response to an inquiry from CNET, the company was quick to distance itself from the search result and to place the responsibility for it on Google:
AOL spokesman Andrew Weinstein said the company has contacted Google about the Martin Luther King search results. “We get all of our organic search results from Google, as you know, so we don’t set the algorithms by which they are ranked. Although we can’t micro-manage billions of search results, our users would not expect this to be the first result for that common search, and we do not want to promote the Web sites of hate organizations, so we have asked Google to remove this particular site from the results it provides to us.”
That seems like an entirely reasonable position. Clearly, a white supremacist site is not the site that any rational person would consider an appropriate recommendation for someone looking for information on a black civil-rights leader. But Google doesn’t seem to agree. In fact, in responding to CNET, it defends the King result as being “relevant to the query” and suggests that it is evidence of the integrity of the Google PageRank algorithm:
At Google, a Web site’s ranking is determined by computer algorithms using thousands of factors to calculate a page’s relevance to any given query, a company representative said. The company can’t tweak the results because of that automation and the need to maintain the integrity of the results, she said. “In this particular example, the page is relevant to the query and many people have linked to it, giving it more PageRank than some of the other pages. These two factors contribute to its ranking,” the representative wrote in an e-mail.
A Microsoft spokesman is even more explicit in asserting that the King result is a manifestation of algorithmic “integrity”:
The results on Microsoft’s search engine are “not an endorsement, in any way, of the viewpoints held by the owners of that content,” said Justin Osmer, senior product manager for Windows Live Search. “The ranking of our results is done in an automated manner through our algorithm which can sometimes lead to unexpected results,” he said. “We always work to maintain the integrity of our results to ensure that they are not editorialized.”
By “editorialized” he seems to mean “subjected to the exercise of human judgment.” And human judgment, it seems, is an unfit substitute for the mindless, automated calculations of an algorithm. We are not worthy to question the machine we have made. It is so pure that even its corruption is a sign of its integrity.