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By Casey Bukro
Ethics AdviceLine for Journalists.
What does Google do, and how does it work?
Sure, you type a question and you get a load of information.
If you Google what Google does, here’s the answer you get: “Search engines like Google follow links. They follow links from one web page to another. Google consists of a crawler, an index and an algorithm. The crawler follows the links on the web. It goes around the Internet 24/7 and saves the HTML-version of all pages in a gigantic database called the index.”
That’s a nuts and bolts answer that appeals to technicians. But it says nothing about accuracy. Is the information true? And if not, what can you do about it?
From the time in 1998 when two Stanford University PhD students started Google, users were pretty much powerless against what is known today as “the most powerful company in the world.”
That changed somewhat on Dec. 7, 2022, when the European Union’s top court ruled that search engines must “dereference information” if a person making the request can show that the material is “manifestly inaccurate.”
Google said it welcomed the decision.
In the case before the EU, two managers of a group of investment companies, who were not identified, asked Google to remove search results based on their names that linked to articles criticizing the group’s investment model. They said the articles made false claims. Google refused because it didn’t know whether the articles were accurate. The court disagreed, saying if someone submits evidence proving “the manifest inaccuracy” of the information, the search engine must grant the request. To avoid making it too hard to get false statements removed, the court said people may provide evidence “that can reasonably be required.”
The ruling is seen as applying to Europeans in the 27-nation bloc in the European Union. It’s believed that removing a person’s name might be sufficient to comply with the court order, while the accompanying article can still be found.
Search engines would not need to investigate the facts of each case to determine whether the content is accurate, the court said. They could remove the parts proven to be inaccurate.
Internet accuracy advocates lauded the court’s ruling for potentially paving the way toward greater investments for a trained workforce to handle deletion requests.
“This will hopefully push Google and similar Big Tech firms to invest in a sufficiently trained and well-employed workforce capable of handling such requests, instead of outsourcing crucial content curation work to underpaid workers or an unaccountable algorithm,” said Jan Penfrat, senior policy advisor at European Digital Rights (EDRi), an international advocacy group headquartered in Brussels, Belgium.
To be forgotten
Under a principle known as “right to be forgotten,” Europeans have the right to ask Google and other search engines to delete links to outdated or embarrassing information about themselves, even if it is true. These regulations often pit data privacy concerns against the public’s right to know.
In a statement, Google said: “Since 2014, we’ve worked hard to implement the right to be forgotten in Europe, and to strike a sensible balance between people’s rights to access to information and privacy.”
The United States lags behind the European Union in the drive to provide people with deletion power. About 70 million U.S. adults have criminal records, including those who were arrested but not convicted. According to Pew Trusts, as of April 2021, at least 11 states have automatic expungement laws over public records, but nothing stops the media from reporting the existence of an expunged arrest or conviction.
The Big Five
Google went public through an initial public offering in 2004. In 2015, it reorganized as a wholly owned subsidiary of Alphabet Inc., a holding company that is one of the Big Five American information technology companies, including Amazon, Apple, Meta and Microsoft.
Google and YouTube are the two most visited websites worldwide, followed by Facebook and Twitter. Google also is the largest search engine, mapping and navigation application and email provider.
Its prominence and size drew criticism. In 2020, Google executives faced questions from federal lawmakers on digital competition. Later that year, the Department of Justice announced filing a suit in federal court accusing Google of illegally maintaining a monopoly over digital search through exclusive business contracts and agreements that lock out competition. That included a contract in which Google paid billions of dollars to Apple to make Google the default search engine for iPhone and iPads.
Google “has maintained its monopoly power through exclusionary practices that are harmful to competition,” said Jeffery Rosen, a deputy attorney general. “Google is the gateway to the Internet and a search advertising behemoth.”
Two decades earlier, said the DOJ suit, Google started as a scrappy Silicon Valley start-up with an innovative way to search the emerging Internet. “That Google is long gone. The Google of today is a monopoly gatekeeper for the Internet, and one of the wealthiest companies on the planet.”
A decision in the case is expected to take years.
The Ethics AdviceLine for Journalists was founded in 2001 by the Chicago Headline Club (Chicago professional chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists) and Loyola University Chicago Center for Ethics and Social Justice. It partnered with the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University in 2013. It is a free service.
Professional journalists are invited to contact the Ethics AdviceLine for Journalists for guidance on ethics. Call 866-DILEMMA or ethicsadvicelineforjournalists.org.
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