UK Gov Attempts to Control Chatrooms & Search Engines

Source Title:
Guardian Tech
Story Text:

The UK government would like to change the results to search queries, rather than legislating against specific sites, reports the Guardian Tech section.

Talks are taking place with a number of service providers, including Yahoo! and AOL, and search engine companies, in an attempt to reprioritise the results that are thrown up during a trawl on the internet. "When somebody keys in 'suicide' and 'UK', we would like them to be offered a link to the Samaritans long before they find a website showing them what they can do with a car exhaust and a hosepipe," one official said.

A dangerous road for discussions to head down?

If I were Google or Yahoo, I might well be explaining the power of paid results to the government at this point....


Now a Government wants A

next they want other modifications to search results that are less convenient. Although I totally understand that at this instance they may intend well, past and contemporary history shows that once governments have a toe in, there is a big chance it will become a foot or more. I don't think that's the right direction.

The engines are already

The engines are already manipulating results based on European government requests - just look at a search for Online Casino in :)

This is just to proof that they can and will do this - in fact, not very different from the Chinese government: Manipulating the kind of information we, the people, are alloowed to get acces to (or at least find in this particular engine). But try and do the same search in! How difficult do you think it is for Germans to type .com instead of .de? :)

So, unless the UK and other European governments want to go down the Chinese route and block things they do not like on an ISP level (and block any loopholes) they won't be able to stop information available to reach the people.

Steve has hit the nail on

Steve has hit the nail on the head, paid search results.

The money spent trying to convince the engines could pay for a lot of ads.

Hell search engines could even offer that spot for free, seen as it is a good cause.

not surprised

I wonder who the bozo who dreamed this up was. Who actually sat on the tax-payers time in some crummy backwater cubicle in a Govt. building and decided that "Hey good idea, let's be good guys and prevent a suicide by manipulating the democratic nature of the web"
If I ran the Samaritans website I would think about getting some Adsense on their real quick. Got to be a worth a few bucks.

ignore the little man behind the curtain

It's the same old story... find an irrefutably positive public reason to create a mechanism for interfering, so that no one can object. Once that mechanism exists, exploit it for political purposes (the real motivation for action).

I note that this happens when there is but a few dominant search portals. Give us back a set of competitive SEs and then go ahead and try to create some rule about what should come first in the SERPs.

It sounds to me like the

It sounds to me like the Government wants a human edited directory instead of a search engine.

>>Give us back a set of competitive SEs

I agree on this one. While we are moving in the right direction, there simply is not enough diversity and competition in the SE field. It is politically dangerous to be so reliant on just a few search companies.

I think there's a real issue

I think there's a real issue here though. Is a search engine just a technological repository of information or does it have a social duty. SearchGuild regularly gets referers on kill yourself type queries (odd I know) - we redirect most of them where we've noticed to the Samaritans. The UK government can make two, in my opinion, valid arguments for changing the results:

1. Search engines have a social impact and therefore should adjust to social factors. There are those on the internet who would wish to provide information or assist people who are already confused and susceptible to such messages. It wouldn't be reasonable for me to go out into the street to hand out leaflets about "where to find information on how to kill yourself", so it would seem doubtful that it's reasonable for a search engine to do the same.

2. Whilst search engine algorithms don't account for it is is arguable that a return result of the samaritans is as relevant or more to the query. If someone types into a search engine a how to kill yourself query they generally mean I want to kill myself. Seems to me that search engines should provide a balanced representation and that the samaritans, for example, who deal with the subject would be an appropriate high response.

Maybe it sets a precedent of a road that some may be concerned with, not me. The social boundaries and responsibilities for this kind of thing are well defined in the real world so there's little reason they would be less well defined online. This issue, to me, is more about the provision of the most appropriate information than the removal of other information (i.e. it's not about censoring).

The number of SE "players" that there are does not seem, to me, to have any bearing on the availability of information on the web. Though it could have some influence on the ease of finding that information. However, this is a self balancing equation - if the information is hard to find but is considered important by many then there will be more "players" providing search for that information.

One of the fine things about the net is it's very difficult to censor/police, one of the bad things is that it hasn't yet developed a social conscience. I think that this addresses that and I cast my vote for it.

If society decides...

If society decides to take action on a particular issue, whether it be a particularly media-friendly and popular one of stopping suicide aids or politically undesirable sites then action should be taken against those sites directly and openly using the laws of a particular society, rather than coercing commercial companies into a behind-the-scenes "arrangement".


Why, If it increases relevancy in a social context?

Errm, because laws can be

Errm, because laws can be debated in public; because cosy arrangements like this have led to governments and companies covering collusion which is against laws passed by our representatives; because any time that our capacity to access information is diminished in secrecy we lose the more of our ability to decide matters for ourselves; because there appears to be no oversight to control who, what and how such an arrangement is implemented especially in political instances; (I could continue...)

I've no wish to debate assisted suicide as a case here - but I think that this story and the .de and .fr cases linked above have important general implications.

Sorry, you edited your post

Sorry, you edited your post - my answer was in response to the question "Why?".

Need to start their own engine

It seems to me that if the govt. wants certain results to appear, they need to create their own search engine. The current ones are private entities which can skew the results any way they please according to their own values and algos.

stever, yes - i editted

stever, yes - i editted because "Why?" wasn't very descriptive of what I was asking (clearly :) ). Timing huh! I think we agree that political manipulation of results is generally bad, I just don't think manipulation of results by external bodies is always bad.

I personally think it's a bad assumption to assume that a positive change necessarily opens the doorway to negative changes.

Jill: we disagree. They are indeed private entities but no private entity is free to do whatever they want. As individuals we have legal and social obligations, as companies we have legal and social obligations. Sometimes when those obligations aren't being met they should be forced or urged upon them. Assume I give out leaflets on how to murder your neighbour, is it a valid solution do you think for you to give out leaflets on how not to murder your neighbour? No? Why then, is it a valid solution to create another engine? Silly. Silly. Silly.

John Andrews, excellently

John Andrews, excellently put. Jill, if they do start their own engine who better to partner with than the Guardian newspaper? :-) That'll be a good excuse to funnel some more public money to the Guardian (in addition to all the money they get for carrying public sector job ads).

Means and ends

>>I just don't think manipulation of results by external bodies is always bad

I don't think the end is necessarily bad, I think the means are bad.

Should (to take another popular theme) sex offenders' addresses be highlighted in Local Search?
Should public figures be able to remove personal details from search results because of problems with stalking?
Should beliefs held by a majority of the population of a country be advanced in a search on a scientific theory?

I don't know what the answers are to those questions, but I would rather see the principles debated than actions taking place as a result of closed meetings.

For comparison...

I don't know how it is in the UK, but most every local television station in the U.S. has a policy against covering suicides -- because they don't want to encourage suicides. You can safely assume it started with police and social/govt. workers suggesting to the media that "this isn't something you should be glorifying" with news coverage.

You can argue whether a suicide is newsworthy, but I'd say it's no less newsworthy than the car accident that kills one passenger - and you always see that stuff on local news. My second TV job was in Twin Falls, ID, where our station would occasionally get letters from people announcing they planned to commit suicide by jumping off the Perrine Bridge over the Snake River. That would've been spectacular video - just the stuff TV loves. But we did our civic duty and referred the information to the appropriate authorities.

I've never heard anyone, i.e. - Joe Public - complain about this policy in the news media. So I just wonder -- as search engines increasingly become the online "eyes" through which we see, is there any comparison between them and news media?

just today

think there's a real issue here though. Is a search engine just a technological repository of information or does it have a social duty.

A social duty, yes. But which social duty?

they won't be able to stop information available to reach the people.

Look again :)

In the papers today,

Thailand bans unregistered mobile phones in three provinces for security reasons.

Canada wants to require isp's to have an aggregate capacity of 8000 simulataneous police internet wiretaps, to be paid for by the isp's.


Caught a rerun of Johnny Mnemonic, and the takeaway is *not* the role of big pharma, but the proposition that his trade exists because the carriage of data is subject to government license. (there is a short scene where he is interrogated by a scanning machine, which he tricks into accepting his identification as a government licensed data courier.)

How old is that movie again?

no way

If someone types into a search engine a how to kill yourself query they generally mean I want to kill myself.

Absolutely not! And this reveals a significant danger with such meddling.

A letter to the newspaper announcing an intended suicide is a call for attention/help. A search query is not. I myself have queried such things many times out of curiosity (just did again, actually ;-) and damned if I would want any government agency or "support group" following up on that. Geesh. Talk about invasion of privacy.

And to think this discussion came after just a hint of government meddling... I can't imagine what we would get if we let the good-meaning, want-to-be-helpful public interfere with free use of the Internet-as-information-source. Suppose you get summons for a misdemeanor crime. In many ways it is ok for a beat cop and judge to know about your misdemeanor indiscretions because he sees it relative to the real world.... it is nothing compared to what people are doing out there. But reveal that little indiscretion to your "innocent" (and perhaps righteous) neighbor? C'mon. Social order is not obtained through surveillance. Never has been, never will.

I dont think i'd have a

I dont think i'd have a problem in this scenario if Google/Gov arranged for Samaritans to have the top adwords spot, the one at the top of the results.

Would you?


A capital idea. Like a donation, and labeled as "sponsored". But not legislated.

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