Ethics of Search Engines

image of laptop with Google search on the screen.
Figure 1: Laptop Search, generated by MidJourney.

In today‘s digital world, we use search engines everyday to find information we are looking for. Whether that be for research, news, entertainment, shopping or any general curiosity we may have, we trust that these engines will provide us with the best results. However, how much should we trust these results?

To understand why we get the results that we do, we have to look at how major search engines like Google, Yahoo, and Bing engineer their algorithms. In order for a site to come up on the results page, it must be linked to certain keywords or other related sites. The more links and keywords associated with the site the higher on the results page it will show up. Companies can also pay to have their sites show up at the top of results. These are labeled as “ads” and are separated from the organic search results. Search engines also rely on algorithms that assess users’ data to personalize search results.

Major search engines have been criticized for giving inappropriate, racist, and untruthful results. Some argue these engines are ethically responsible for the information they provide, given their high influence on the everyday person. Others may say it is the user’s job to be able to distinguish and judge the information provided.

There are many layers to this issue as we will discuss. Ultimately we look to answer these key questions: Are major search engines’ current filters and algorithms ethical? Should they be doing more? Or less? And for what ethical reasons?

Ⅰ. Key Questions 

  1. When one searches for something through a search engine, they expect to receive all the related information that pertains to their inquiry. Are there reasons it may be more ethically responsible to withhold some information? For instance, can you think of some reasons search engines might withhold false or inaccurate content? What should be the deciding factor when determining what should be restricted in search results?
  2. What should be the standards for filtering search results and who should set them? Should it be the government’s responsibility to set policies for search engine filters, or should it be the individual search engine companies that decide on what content is shown when you search on their website?
  3. Search engine users have grown to trust their search engines even when, perhaps, they shouldn’t. For example, the founders of Google, Larry Page and Sergey Brin wrote a paper proposing the core ideas for the search engine while they were students at Stanford. They argued that advertising would inherently corrupt a search engine, biasing it toward advertisers and away from the needs of consumers (Foroohar, 2019). What are the ethical impacts of ads in search results?
  4. Should search engines set standards to censor content for children, similar to television? Why or why not?

Ⅱ. Mini Prompts

  1. In 2016, the Washington Post published an article about Google receiving backlash for its image search results. At the time, if you searched “three white teenagers” on Google Images, you would mostly see stock photos of white teenagers. But if you searched “three black teenagers”, you would get multiple mugshots of young African Americans. How should search engines address this issue, especially in light of increased calls to address systemic racism?
  2. The algorithmic practice of personalization in which a search engine looks at users’ location and previous searches, is a great way to get search results that pertain to what one is particularly interested in. However, this can lead to some pitfalls. For example, if Google is aware of your political alignment, ideologies, or any other opinion you may hold through your searches, they could show you results that fit your existing perspectives. Many fail to see the other side of issues due to the one-sided information they are receiving. This phenomenon is often referred to as “autopropaganda.” Many argue it is also anti-democratic in nature, as a good democracy “requires citizens to see things from one another’s point of view,” (Pariser, 2011). Since 2011, Google has begun reducing the extent of their personalization algorithm. How might we make sense of the ethics of personalized search results in terms of filter bubbles and the impact on democracy? What other ways should search engines address this, if at all?
  3. The algorithmic practice of Search Engine Optimization (SEO) is a system in which sites can better their chances of being at the top of results by linking their site to keywords and related sites. Search engines have set rules that limit the extent of this optimization by, for example, penalizing the ranking of sites using keywords that do not pertain to the content of their site. Are these rules productive? In what ways do they protect users? What are some additional ethical considerations related to companies using SEO practices to their advantage?

This one-sheet was created for the SOPHIA of Worcester County chapter by students in the Communication Law and Ethics course at Fitchburg State University and edited by Dr. J.J. Sylvia IV and Dr. Kyle Moody. Its creation was supported by SOPHIA and the Douglas and Isabelle Crocker Center for Civic Engagement. Students included: Alexander Pierre, Maximillian Simonelli, Emma Jacques, Kevin Sim, John Javaloyes, Ryan Titemore, and Colby Molleo. Image generated by MidJourney.