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Ethical responsibility in Information Search?

With the rise of the internet came the omnipresence of searchable digital information. Nearly everything is clickable and google-able on the massive world wide web. But is this cause for concern? Is it possible that dominating search engines such as Google have too much control over what information is provided to us?

Jon Kleinberg, professor of Computer Science at Cornell, came up with one of the foundational algorithms of web page search in 1999: HITS, or Hyperlink Induced Topic Search. A strong influence on Google’s PageRank algorithm, HITS works by rating web pages as hubs and authorities; a hub is a web page with links coming into it, and a good hub has many. Similarly an authority is a web page with many links coming out of it, and a good authority has many. Authorities point to hubs, and hubs themselves can be authorities, incorporating the idea that each web page can act in two different ways. This resulting algorithm of HITS then encodes important information about how web pages link together, which is useful for search companies trying to show consumers relevant content given a search query.

However, how much should we rely on one “complete” source or algorithm in finding all of our information? Surely HITS is not much of a threat, but we don’t know what algorithm Google is really using behind the curtain of PageRank. The company holds over a 90% market share on the search engine space, and as the world continues to access more of its information through online means, I worry about placing trust in one company to provide the best information to its users, as opposed to the information lobbied for by often wealthy clients looking to promote themselves. For example, Google’s revenue in ads was twenty seven billion dollars in the last quarter of 2018. We don’t know how much their incentives are to provide the best information to their users (what they say they do) versus making profit as one of the largest for-profit companies in the world. Should we trust them or not? Take for example this incident:

Though I can’t say how ethical Google really is, I can say this: as a student in computer science considering careers in the field, I know that our code or algorithms in the professional world could have as far reaching implications as to how society accesses information, that we have power over how that information is distributed, and that it is our responsibility to give a fair chance to all voices on the internet (which has the status of a human right according to the UN) in the technologies that we create. It’s worth thinking about if you’re considering any kind of technical path in information technology.

Google posts $31.1B in total revenue, beats top- and bottom-line expectations


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