from the this-whole-thing-is-offensive dept
Google is constantly under pressure from all sides to change how it ranks just about everything. There's a massive SEO industry, a decent portion of which is dedicated into tricking Google into ranking some stuff higher than others (or downgrading content that someone doesn't like). And, then, of course, there are the "outside" interests. For years, the legacy recording and movie industries would misleadingly blame Google for piracy and demand that it downrank "pirate" links. Google caved in and did so, and the end result has been kind of a mess. Because it's based on DMCA notices in to Google, the company now gets flooded with an ever increasing number of DMCA notices -- many of which are completely bogus (and potentially just designed to mess with search rankings).
On top of that, in cases where it does downrank so-called "pirate" sites, since people are still looking for unauthorized content anyway, they end up going to more dangerous sites, where they're more likely to get malware. And, of course, as we predicted, despite caving in and giving the RIAA/MPAA a tool to shape search results, those industries still aren't satisfied. Because they'll never be satisifed. That's because they fail to understand that the problem isn't Google. Google is just a representation of what's on the internet -- and many people on the internet want access to content that is otherwise difficult to get. That's not Google's fault.
A couple of years ago, Google also announced that it would allow people to remove "revenge porn" results from search. And you can certainly understand why pretty much everyone would want this as an end result. But, still, once you make that tool available, there's reason to fear that it, too, will be abused. And even if a company as large as Google may be able to properly staff up to go through and review each request, this only puts pressure on everyone else -- including much smaller, less well-staffed, less well-resourced players to do something similar.
And now... for reasons that are unclear, Google has announced that it opened up a tool that will let people report "offensive" results and potentially downrank those results.
With the change, content with racial slurs could now get flagged under a new category called "upsetting-offensive." So could content that promotes hate or violence against a specific group of people based on gender, race or other criteria.
While flagging something doesn't directly affect the search results themselves, it's used to tweak the company's software so that better content ranks higher. This approach might, for instance, push down content that is inaccurate or has other questionable attributes, thereby giving prominence to trustworthy sources.
Again, at a first pass, this kind of thing absolutely sounds good. We should want better results, and the idea of letting Google's many millions of users help flag certain sites to be carefully reviewed for "upsetting or offensive" content makes sense. But... again, this definitely seems like the kind of thing that is open to widespread abuse. First off, what is "upsetting or offensive" anyway? That's a completely subjective standard, and one that we've seen people judge very, very differently. Second, what do you do if you really dislike a particular site? You open up a vote-brigade by a bunch of people to label it "upsetting or offensive." Trump haters can go after Breitbart and Trump supporters can go after the NY Times. Hopefully Google resists those kinds of vote brigading, but just the fact that this kind of tool is open to such abuse is concerning. And, again, when Google does something like this, it puts more pressure on other sites, with many fewer resources, to do something similar or get branded as somehow "supporting" offensive content.
Again, none of this is to say that Google must be promoting "offensive" content. It has the right to create its search results however it wants. But the more tools it opens up to the public to potentially downrank sites, the more the risk is that such tools get widely abused.