When Googling gets dangerous

May 26, 2008 @ 12:01 am

By Jim Pavia

Larry Page, a co-founder of Google Inc., may be one of the smartest guys on the planet. But his brainchild isn't perfect, and I suggest he rethink the way his high-powered search engine deals with system glitches — as well as customer complaints about those glitches.

Let me explain.

Google's computers picked up a story from last week's issue of InvestmentNews headlined, "Ruling may tie SEC's hands on fining advisers who aid and abet fraud."

The story's third paragraph was worded exactly as follows: "Mr. Radano, who in the early 1980s was a staff aide to then-Rep. John Breaux, D-La., before Mr. Breaux was elected to the Senate, was charged in 2002 with helping investment adviser Steven Bolla hide from clients the fact that Mr. Bolla had been barred from the industry."

Since the story was picked up, when users "Googled" the term "Breaux" or anything else about the story, this is what appeared under the first headline in the search results list: "John Breaux, D-La., before Mr. Breaux was elected to the Senate, was charged in 2002 with helping investment adviser Steven Bolla hide from clients the fact that Mr. Bolla."

Apparently, Google's display protocol and its search algorithms — the mathematical formulas that power the search engine and enable it to retrieve desired content almost instantly — erred. Their mistake was to truncate the original InvestmentNews sentence.

The shorter sentence that Google displayed changed the meaning and implied that Sen. John Breaux was charged with a crime. Nothing could be further from the truth.

But how do you explain a critical subtlety to a computer?

I sent an e-mail to Kent Walker, Google's vice president and general counsel, and to Larry Page himself.

My letter stated: "One of our stories appears on a Google search with a brief description (which was added by Google) under our main headline. That description, which was added electronically by Google, reads: 'John Breaux, D-La. was charged in 2002 with helping investment adviser Steve Bolla hide from clients...' That sentence is not accurate and does not appear in our news story. It is basically accusing Sen. Breaux of committing fraud and it is the furthest thing from the truth. InvestmentNews did not report that in our story. Therefore, as you will conclude, this line needs to be removed immediately. I cannot stress how important it is for Google to make this fix as soon as possible. I trust this will be remedied. Thank you for your time and consideration in this serious matter."

The next day the good folks at Google responded, in part, with this e-mail:

Hi Jim, Thank you for your note. We recognize your concern, but there is nothing that Google can do to remove the offending content without the cooperation of the site's webmaster. Google simply aggregates information already published on the web. Even if we were able to eliminate the offending page from our index, it would still exist on the web. Every few weeks our robots crawl the web for content. If the site is available on the internet, we will likely pick it up and add it to our index again. Only the webmaster can, by including code that blocks our robots, prevent a page from appearing on Google.

We are sorry that we cannot be of more immediate assistance in this matter. Regards.

While I understand that Google had no malicious intent, they still have a responsibility to correct a problem they created. And they have a responsibility to establish a way for outsiders to talk to actual human Google officials — not powerless "customer service" reps — who can understand a non-digital problem and deal with it thoughtfully.

To date, Google has done nothing, zero, zip, to remedy this situation.

But I did. We removed the "offending" reference to Mr. Breaux (remember, it was Google who offended, not us) from the electronic version of the story on the InvestmentNews.com website. So when Google's web crawlers start trolling the Internet again, they no longer will be able to accuse an innocent man of committing a crime.

You can be sure our Google episode is not an isolated incident. With torrents of data the subject of Google searches, one can only imagine the potential for business and personal defamation.

As a professional journalist in the business for more than 25 years, this non-human examination and manipulation of news content concerns me. It should concern you too.

The potential for damaging errors is enormous. To make sure your good name is not besmirched by an algorithm, I suggest you periodically do a Google search on your firm and your name and see what pops up.

We can all agree that by helping the world sort through the web's ever-expanding universe of data, Google has earned a prize place in the economy. However, with that power and economic clout comes responsibility. And it would be responsible of Google to occasionally override the computers.

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