Google's antitrust hearing on Capitol Hill today is forcing the company to answer all sorts of uncomfortable questions about its prized search engine algorithm—answers that don't necessarily jive with arguments it's made previously about its ubiquitous website ranking system. For instance, The Wall Street Journal quotes Matt Cutts, a chief search engineer at Google, saying that the search engine's "rankings are 'opinions' and are 'entitled to full constitutional protection." For those who've followed the company over the years, the word "opinions" should jut out like a red flag. In previous statements, the company has characterized its search results as an emotionless, algorithmic representation of information. "Our users trust our objectivity and no short-term gain could ever justify breaching that trust," reads the company's corporate statement on PageRank. That depiction has been a handy way to fend off critics of the site's search results who would like its ranking system changed.
A precise example of this played out yesterday when long-shot GOP presidential contender Rick Santorum contacted Google to resolve his Google-bomb problem. For the uninitiated, sex columnist Dan Savage had created a rather lewd meaning for Santorum that has tricked Google's algorithms into placing its rank as number one every time you search "Rick Santorum." Responding to Santorum's demand to "get rid of it," Google pleaded innocent. "Google’s search results are a reflection of the content and information that is available on the web. Users who want content removed from the Internet should contact the webmaster of the page directly," a Google spokesperson said.
Unfortunately, for Google, if it wants to start depicting its search algorithm as an "opinion" rather than an automated formula, that brings with it the responsibility of defending its decisions, which would techinically include explaining why a "frothy mix of lube and fecal matter" is the best result for Rick Santorum. For a corporation getting cozier with Republicans, that's gonna be a tough sell.
This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.