Shaping our Web – Search Engines

Overview

It’s difficult to fully comprehend where society would be today without search engine technology. A simpler world perhaps? Well, certainly less convenient.

People around the world use a number of services, the most popular being Google (75% net market share), to find and retrieve information. Interestingly, ‘Google’ has become a verb in its own right; added to the Oxford English Dictionary in 2006, it serves as a reminder of just how deeply embedded search engines are within our society.

If you don’t know something – ‘just google it’.

Image: screenshot of Google search, no attribution required

For Halavais, the definition of a search engine is, ‘an information retrieval system that allows for keyword searches of distributed digital text’ (Halavais 2009).

As useful as that definition is on its own – a technical understanding of search engines and their history will provide context when trying to understand who benefits from this transformative technology – and what ethical concerns may exist in the shadows. For Blanke, understanding ‘the technology and its functioning’ embodies the framework by which analysis of the ethical implications of search engines should be conducted (Blanke, 2005).

Therefore, this essay will paint a brief picture of the evolution and history of search engines – examining how development from the pre-Internet era set the building blocks for not only the success of today’s search engines – but also for the issues that surround them.

 

History – The Development of the Search Engine

Considering the power that search engines have as ‘gatekeepers of the Web,’ (Hinman, 2005, 21), it’s surprising just how little the average person might understand about how search engines work, and the potential concerns inherent in their design.

The modern search engine user interface can be summarised with a simple two-step process:

  1. User ‘searches’ for something.
  2. Search engine retrieves relevant material and presents it to the user.
Modern User Interface of Search Function, CC0 Public Domain, Public Domain Pictures

This basic premise goes back all the way to the pre-Internet era of information retrieval, however over time internal structures have become more developed and increasingly complicated.

The first electronic computer, the ENIAC (Electronic Numerical Integrator and Computer) focused mainly on processing numbers – search and information retrieval features were not considered important. However, a number of leading thinkers saw potential in the new technologies, and more importantly, understood the importance of figuring out how to organise and retrieve the exponentially increasing amounts of information becoming available. Vannevar Bush (1945), considered to be one of the most important information retrieval theorists, developed the notion of what we now call ‘hyperlinks,’ described as ‘associative indices between portions of microfilmed text.’ Bush’s notion of associative trails contrasted with traditional methods of indexing derived from librarians, and set the stage for the types of objectivity related issues we face today.

 

ENIAC ‘computer’ CC0 Public Domain, Wiki Commons

Rudimentary search ideas and functions were built on up until the 1906s, by which time plans for a grand computing network (the internet) were well and truly beginning. It was during this time that TCP (Transmission Control Protocol) and FTP (File Transfer Protocol) architectures were developed, culminating in the ‘first’ of the newly developed search engines – ARCHIE. ARCHIE enabled users to search for file names, but was relatively limiting otherwise.

The 1990s saw further improvements through HTTP (Hyper Text Transfer Protocol) and HTML (Hyper Text Mark-up Language), and would enable non-technical users to engage better with the newly founded World Wide Web. However, in order for the web to achieve its looming potential – a more intuitive user interface was required. 1993 introduced the Mosaic Web browser (became Netscape Navigator), an intuitive browser that hosted a number of different search engines – popular ones including Excite, Alta Vista and Infoseek – that used ‘spiders’ to ‘crawl’ through the web and index information.

The major difference between the early Web and Web 2.0 is the dynamic and participatory nature of the latter. The difference between early search engines and current ones is less clear. Early versions of the technology ranked pages on popularity (i.e. The number of visits a page had) as well as the amount of links from other pages. Hinman infers that the shift to current algorithms derived from companies looking more closely at, ‘what users wanted to find’ (Hinman 2005, 22) – resulting in Googles successful PageRank algorithm. Thus, personalisation embodies a key factor in Googles proprietary algorithm, Pariser noting that, ‘there is no standard Google anymore’ (Pariser, 2011).

The benefits of instant, personalised and thoughtful search engines are relatively obvious. Imagine having to do the work yourself – make sure to consisder that there is now well over 130 trillion individual pages on the web (as of 2016)…

However, while search engines have enabled productivity and entertainment on an unprecedented scale, they have also engendered a number of ethical concerns.

 

Example of a PageRanking, Creative Commons 2.5 Generic, Wiki Commons, Author: Zetkin, 22 July 2012

 

However, while search engines have enabled productivity and entertainment on an unprecedented scale, they have also engendered a number of ethical concerns.

 

Impacts – Who benefits, and more importantly – who doesn’t (hint: its all of us)

Search engine bias and the problem of transparency is one of the key ethical concerns that affects almost every sector including political, economic, social and cultural. Critics highlight the notion that human values are unknowingly embedded in the technological framework of search engine algorithms and thus result in hidden biases, however the issue of ‘bias’ extends much further.

Introna and Nissenbaum (2000) claim that search engines, ‘systematically exclude certain sites and certain types of sites, in favour of others, systematically giving prominence to some at the expense of others’. There are two main reasons considered to be most influential – the impact of advertisers and schemes of search engine optimisation (SEO). The founders of Google, Larry Page and Sergey Brin, at first opposed paid advertisements in search engines, but later highlighted that it would be reasonable to, ‘expect that advertising funded search engines will be inherently biased towards the advertisers and away from the needs of consumers,’ and that, ‘less blatant biases are likely to be tolerated by the market’ (Brin and Page, 1998, 18). The arbitrary and somewhat confusing criteria for acceptance and placement of certain paid advertisements give room to these biases. SEO refers to the tactic of ‘playing’ the system in order to get higher rankings – manipulating aspects of system features and exploiting search engine algorithms. This optimisation, which can be achieved through mass linking and referencing throughout the Web, can result in higher page ranks, and users that understand how to engage and develop these techniques will continue to have an advantage.

The problem of objectivity is further relevant to all users of the internet. Similar to news media and journalism, search engines may give of the appearance of objectivity, however the criteria embedded within algorithms and personalisation of search results paint a different picture. Personalisation of algorithms highlight an additional layer of bias – while some people may understand that their search results are skewed by advertising, editorial control and the like, it is somewhat surprising to learn that individual searches differ from user to user. While many see this type of bias unappealing, citing effects such as filter bubbles, some view it as a, ‘beneficial consequence of search engines optimizing content for their users’ (Goldman, 2008, 121). However, the potential impacts of said filter bubbles are undeniable, and can have significant influence on democracy (explored below).

License: Creative Commons 3 – CC BY-SA 3.0 Attribution: Alpha Stock Images Original Author: Nick Youngson

Privacy is another big factor for consideration that applies to political, economic and social environments. It exists in two main forms; (1) data collection and the notion of search engines collating and selling personal data to advertisers etc. as well as (2) privacy issues on the level of the users, utilising the technology to find out information about other people. The defining factor to consider when determining whether this is problematic is that the majority of people have not officially consented to having personal information spread around and accessed whenever.

This directly leads into the privacy concern of monitoring and surveillance. Until recently, most people were not aware to the fact that their personal information, including search history, date and time of user activity were being monitored and archived. This wealth of information, everything from ‘where you were logged in, from what browser you were using, to what you had searched for before to make queries about, to who you were and what kinds of sites you’d like,’ can and is sold on to advertisers and the like, while companies build ‘profiles’ of users in their databases (Pariser, 2011). Aside from the commercial sector, government bodies also draw clear benefits from this level of surveillance, a scary thought when considering ideas of censorship and the like.

 

The problematic internet (a prediction) – 1894 illustration by Frederick Burr Opper, WikipediaCC0 Public Domain

In the initial stages of the internet, democracy was thought to be central to the structure of the technology. Introna and Nissenbaum (2000) highlight the perception of people that search engines would, ‘give voice to diverse social, economic, and cultural groups, to members of society not frequently heard in the public sphere [and] empower the traditionally disempowered, giving them access both to typically unreachable modes of power and to previously unavailable troves of information.’ However, one may question whether the ‘independent voices and diverse viewpoints’ central to democracy can be, ‘heard through the filter of search engines’ (Diaz, 2008). Hinman has highlighted search engines as, ‘gatekeepers of cyberspace,’ but further than that, they can be considered ‘gatekeepers of knowledge’ (Hinman, 2005). Notions of filter bubbles and personalisation are hence considered problematic for democracy, outlined by Pariser (2011) who highlights, ‘personalization filters serve up a kind of invisible autopropaganda, indoctrinating us with our own ideas, amplifying our desire for things that are familiar and leaving us oblivious to the dangers lurking in the dark territory of the unknown’. While understanding alternate points of view are considered essential in a democracy, search engine technology is preventing such engagement outside of reinforcing a user’s established ideologies.

 

Conclusion

Throughout this essay, I have provided a brief history of the development of search engines to where they are today. There is no denying the benefits this technology engenders for every aspect of society – at its most basic by allowing access to information to the world, but the transformative nature of the technology has created many ethical concerns that people need to be educated on.

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Reference List:

Halavais, A., 2009. Search Engine Society, Malden, MA: Polity.

Blanke, T., 2005. “Ethical Subjectification and Search Engines: Ethics Reconsidered,” International Review of Information Ethics, 3: 33–38.

Hinman, L. M., 2005. “Esse Est Indicato in Google: Ethical and Political Issues in Search Engines,” International Review of Information Ethics, 3: 19–25.

Bush, V. (1945). As we may thinkAtlantic Monthly176(1), 101-108. from http://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/1969/12/as-we-may-think/3881/ (Archived by WebCite® at http://www.webcitation.org/5s62Fj0I6)

Pariser, E., 2011. The Filter Bubble: What the Internet is Hiding from You, New York: Penguin.

Introna, L. and H. Nissenbaum, 2000. “Shaping the Web: Why The Politics of Search Engines Matters,” The Information Society, 16(3): 169–185.

Brin, S. and Page, L., 1998. “The Anatomy of a Large-Scale Hypertextual Web Search Engine,” in Seventh International World-Wide Web Conference (WWW 7), Amsterdam: Elsevier.

Goldman, E., 2008. “Search Engine Bias and the Demise of Search Engine Utopianism,” in Web Search: Multidisciplinary Perspectives, A. Spink and M. Zimmer (eds.), Berlin: Springer-Verlag, pp. 121–134.

Diaz, A., 2008. “Through the Google Goggles: Sociopolitical Bias in Search Engine Design,” in Web Search: Multidisciplinary Perspectives, A. Spink and M. Zimmer (eds.), Berlin: Springer-Verlag, pp. 11–34.

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Just Fucking Google It. Retrieved from http://jfgi.herokuapp.com/

Ltd, B. Search engine site online Free Stock Photo – Public Domain Pictures. Retrieved from https://www.publicdomainpictures.net/en/view-image.php?image=261762&picture=search-engine-site-online

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Search in Archie. Retrieved from http://archie.icm.edu.pl/archie-adv_eng.html

Niechai, V. (2018). Why Google PageRank still matters in 2018. Retrieved from https://www.link-assistant.com/news/page-rank-2018.html

Schwartz, B. (2016). Google’s search knows about over 130 trillion pages – Search Engine Land. Retrieved from https://searchengineland.com/googles-search-indexes-hits-130-trillion-pages-documents-263378

File:PageRank-Beispiel.png – Wikimedia Commons. (2012). Retrieved from https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:PageRank-Beispiel.png

Privacy – Wooden Tile Images. Retrieved from http://www.thebluediamondgallery.com/wooden-tile/p/privacy.html

Fake news. Retrieved from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fake_news#/media/File:The_fin_de_si%C3%A8cle_newspaper_proprietor_(cropped).jpg

Barlow, J. (1996). A Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace. Retrieved from https://www.eff.org/cyberspace-independence

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