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Google's evil

For a search engine that claimed not to do any evil, Google is being mighty coy about 'climategate'.

Read time 4min 00sec

For the last two weeks, a scandal has been brewing surrounding leaked e-mails, data and other documents from the University of East Anglia's Climatic Research Unit (CRU).

Those who believe the threat of man-made global warming has been overstated, to give impetus to the UN IPCC efforts for a global treaty to curb carbon dioxide emissions, have been demanding access to data and code to verify the results upon which the IPCC reports are based. They claim the leak - and especially the dreadfully messy code - vindicates their suspicions.

Others, who have been supportive of the IPCC's efforts, say it merely shows scientists "not at their best", and have called for resignations, but little more. Still further to the left, the real outrage appears to be that someone had the temerity to steal data from publicly funded scientists and distribute it on the Internet.

Whatever your position, you might want to learn more about this issue. Which means you turn to Google.

It used to be there, shortly after the scandal broke, but it has since disappeared.

Ivo Vegter, ITWeb contributor

If you use Google often, you might be cognisant of the search suggestion feature, which shows you what others have been searching for, and how many matches those searches returned. They're a great indicator of current hot topics, and a useful shortcut to popular searches.

It might surprise you, therefore, to find that the popular (if hackneyed) term for the issue, 'climategate', is not among the suggestions when you begin typing 'climate'. It used to be there, shortly after the scandal broke, but it has since disappeared.

Ten different 'climate change' options are presented for your edification, many with fewer search results than 'climategate' would have returned. One would think that a two-week old topic that generated well over 10 million Web pages might be of interest to the average Web searcher.

Even if you type it out, you get 'climate guatemala' as your search suggestion.

Other likely terms, such as 'climate e-mails', 'climate fraud', 'climate hack' or 'climate leak', also fail to pop up in the suggestion box. Other relevant words, such as 'global warming', 'cru' or 'east anglia' are equally bereft of references to the scandal in the search suggestions. For 'cru' you get 'cruise ships'. For 'east anglia university' you get an open day and some creative writing courses.

Judging by the Firefox search plugin, which uses Google.com rather than Google.co.za, the US company has bowed to public pressure and has reinstated just one suggestion: 'climate gate scandal'. There's still nothing for 'cru' or 'east anglia', and Google.co.za has not followed suit.

The same problem occurs on the Google News page, despite the fact that if you press ahead and search for 'climategate', you find 2 774 current news articles. The top headline is “Climategate hits Capitol". Even Al Gore, who sits on Google's senior advisory board, must admit this sounds like news.

Microsoft's Bing search engine did better for longer, but has since succumbed to censorship too. For several days after Google had removed the offending search suggestions, only 'cli' was enough to make 'climategate' Bing's top suggestion, as one might expect for a current issue. Upon checking this morning, however, Bing appears also to have been sanitised. (Note to its censors: 'climate-gate' with the hyphen is still there. Quick. Fix it.)

This sort of action smacks of political interference. Google has been particular about the principle that its search is based on an algorithm that assesses a page's value based on the premise that "democracy on the Web works".

Google's mantra is "you can make money without doing evil". It explains this by adding: "Our users trust our objectivity and no short-term gain could ever justify breaching that trust."

That Google jimmies search suggestions, apparently for partisan political reasons, is a dangerous sign, no matter what your political persuasion. This is all the more so now that it hopes to become a dominant player with Google-based mobile and desktop operating systems (Android and Chromium OS), and cloud-based data services for everyone.

If you sold your soul to Google, because it seemed less evil than Microsoft, what if it turned out to be merely the devil in disguise?

Note: Google did not return telephone calls this morning, but after this column was submitted, did revert with a brief e-mail, pointing me to its Q&A on the subject, and adding: "We don't censor search terms in Suggest, though we do remove pornographic or hate terms."

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