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Old 10-12-2005   #1
AccuraCast
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Should Google & Other Search Engines Censor Suicide Searches?

The article linked below speaks about a disturbing trend of young people discussing suicide on chat rooms and forming suicide pacts. It makes pretty disturbing reading, so I would caution readers before clicking on the link.

http://www.guardian.co.uk/uk_news/st...589260,00.html

The UK Home Office is appealing to the leading search engines such as AOL (Google) etc to modify their algorithm so that when someone types in "suicide" they are shown the samaritans site long before they get results on suicide methods etc.

It will be interesting to see how Google handles this one. I know that in the past they've maintained a staunch "we wont tweak the algo / censor results" policy. But then one could argue that helping young persons commit suicide goes against their "do no evil" motto.

I'd also like to hear people's opinions here.
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Old 10-12-2005   #2
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Threadwatch has quite a debate already here:
http://www.threadwatch.org/node/4185

But I'd also love to hear opinions from those on this forum. In general, I think it might be a good idea for them to hand pick some good sites on prevention in addition to algorithm picks. I see nothing wrong with some human oversight, not because a government says to do it, but because it would serve your searchers better and machine generated results aren't perfect.

FYI, I also just posted on the topic over here:
http://blog.searchenginewatch.com/blog/051012-110515

Google and Yahoo already are full of suicide prevention stuff in the top results, MSN also pretty clean and only Ask Jeeves explicitly has two listings that pitch toward those looking to kill themselves.
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Old 10-12-2005   #3
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i really hope google doesnt tamper with the results at all. rationale:

1. i like a google that gives me information, not morals.

2. what kind of precedence does this set? most people agree that suicide is not a good thing, so the issue is not as pressing. but if google decides to edit results for suicide queries, doesnt that set the stage for editing more controversial queries, like abortion or marijuana usage?

3. a person who searches for suicide queries is not necessarily planning on committing suicide. consider the query from the perspective of a novelist or screenwriter.

but, at the end of the day, it's all part of a competitive market. i for one though will be looking for a search engine that gives me the information i'm looking for, not information that is pre-censored based on their morals.
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Old 10-12-2005   #4
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I personally agree with the no-censoring argument. The Internet and search engines are great sources of information because they are unlimited in their reach. If governments are allowed to interfere (even for a "good" cause), it will be a foot in the door for them, and then who's to say what's good and what's evil...

Bush would probably ban all sites claiming he was wrong about the war in Iraq. Most middle-eastern countries would ban all sites with anything to do with homosexuality and so on. And every time there will be those who claim that the government is right in doing so.
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Old 10-12-2005   #5
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Censorship always does, and always should, exist. There are some topics Child porn, Suicide and perhaps murder that we can all aggree on. It wouldn't hurt to hand pic sites for those sorts of searches IMHO. It aint censorship, cause if you dig hard enough you can always find whatever, it is just a nice first line of defence.
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Old 10-12-2005   #6
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Wouldn't it be more effective to nip each of those evils in the bud - shut down child porn sites, track down or keep tabs on visitors to murder sites and shut down sites encouraging suicide.

Censoring the search engines is just that - censorship!

It does not mean that those who want to, will not find the information. So then why do it? ... in fact why waste time making the blameless to change their work instead of directing Government time / resources to punishing / stopping the culprits?
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Old 10-12-2005   #7
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i agree with accuracast. imagine if we werent dealing with the online world but were dealing with the physical world. suppose there was a store selling child porn. this is illegal in most places, if not everywhere; the store can lawfully be shut down. but how about a map that leads to that store, or a road that does? should we shut that down too?

the other issue is one of legality. if something is really worth censoring or banning -- like kiddie porn -- then the laws should decide it. to ask google to wield that power is dangerous, as it is tantamount to asking them to serve as a governing body.

at the end of the day they are a business and their obligation is to their shareholders, so i dont dispute the legitimacy of any decision they make -- although i will be more inclined to conduct my searches elsewhere if censorship becomes their modus operandi.
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Old 10-13-2005   #8
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I don't see much of a difference between detecting spam and censorship - in both cases, you are making a choice to allow or disallow information based on your beliefs, opinions and ethics.

Arguably, since spam is less likely to be harmful, they should spend more time censoring harmful information than spam...

Does that argument sound odd to you? Me too. My question is - why? What is the difference? Why is removing one type of unacceptable information (spam, or even less relevant/popular sites) different from removing another?

Further, many sites that some people consider to be spam or not relevant are considered very differently by their owners, and some others. Who gives the SE the right to choose one site over another?

My point is, don't fool yourself into thinking that any search engine algo is independent from human decision-making, and human choices. The acts of what to look at, what to measure, and how to rank it are all choices, all the time. Type in "sex" and the very first result is a teen sexuality information site with a PR of 6, beating umpteen million highly optimized porn sites. You think that's a natural result? It might be a good one, but natural? I doubt it.

The SERPs are already being manipulated to show you what Google wants you to see, as much as possible. So far, people have accepted it, and rewarded them with popularity. It's not about "information" - it's ALL information, of one sort or another. It's about what is acceptable or preferrable type of information - which is all about choice, not math.

My opinion,

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Old 10-13-2005   #9
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There's a difference between censorship and editorial oversight.

I'm not suggesting that Google or another search engine needs to be filtering out sites about how to commit suicide. That would be censorship. It may be that some laws might get passed forcing them to do that. That would be censorship as well, imposed upon them.

However, it's not censorship to suggest that for a query, some human being might review the results and decide that it makes sense for certain sites to be well visible. Frankly, Yahoo to my knowledge already does this on some queries. MSN used to do it -- hand select some sites you'd get in response to a search on "britney spears," for example.

So what? Leaving it to the algorithm is no guarantee of it being "fair" or "impartial" as an experienced SEO knows. It's just a fast way to often get decent results on a wide variety of topics. You can't hand pick sites for every query.

But for some queries, some human oversight would be helpful. Machines aren't perfect, so why not allow humans into the mix more directly. We're happy to have humans help us create all types of other content. Search results aren't some type of protected reserve.

Nor is ensuring that some suicide helpline is visible for queries about suicide some type of heavy "moral" decision. Again, we're not talking censorship. We're talking about ensuring you are having content that helps people. How is it wrong to ensure that on a query for suicide, you have something visible like that? Far from being a moral thing, it's just a good editorial judgment.

Quote:
Type in "sex" and the very first result is a teen sexuality information site with a PR of 6, beating umpteen million highly optimized porn sites. You think that's a natural result? It might be a good one, but natural? I doubt it.

The SERPs are already being manipulated to show you what Google wants you to see, as much as possible. So far, people have accepted it, and rewarded them with popularity. It's not about "information" - it's ALL information, of one sort or another. It's about what is acceptable or preferrable type of information - which is all about choice, not math.
So let's be clear, Ian -- you're flat out saying that Google has hand manipulated the rankings of that query. They flat out say they don't. You might be right, but I don't agree. I still think they are relying on an algorithm to do that. It would simply be too blatant to hand manipulate that way.

So how could that site outranking "highly optimized" porn sites? C'mon -- lots of unoptimized sites outranking "highly optimized" sites all the time. Optimization is no guarantee of success, and taken to far, it can be harmful. As for PageRank, PR6 pages and lower commonly rank well, since PageRank is only a pure popularity score independent of link analysis and other factors.

I do agree Google manipulates results in other ways. They pull sites out. They skew how links are counted. They do all types of tweaks to try and get the set of results to indeed show what they think they should be showing. But that's not the same as hand manipulation of actual rankings.
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Old 10-13-2005   #10
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Perhaps the best solution is to allow free AdWords accounts to charity groups in this area? That allows for minimal censorship, whilst still allowing the original goal (better info) to rein.

I tried http://www.google.com.au/search?q=su...cr%3DcountryAU and I found that most results were great, but teh lack of the top two spots being utilised was a bit annoying. I mean, Gooogle could write the traffic off as a donation (set the charity sites to maximum CPC) and they would do good and get a $$ bonus.

Quote:
...it's just a good editorial judgment.
And prudent judgement. If someone searches for something very specific, like [sucide club with a specific name], they probably should find it. After all, if this was a researcher, then they neeed to be able to find this stuff.

But just plain [suicide]? Seems to me that an SE that allows that sort a thing to go unchecked is paddling through dangerous waters.

The best solution is surely AdWords with the "better" sites promoted to tjhe top 2/3. This solves most dilemmas, and is really more effective than the organic SERPs anyway.
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Old 10-13-2005   #11
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Quote:
So let's be clear, Ian -- you're flat out saying that Google has hand manipulated the rankings of that query. They flat out say they don't. You might be right, but I don't agree. I still think they are relying on an algorithm to do that. It would simply be too blatant to hand manipulate that way.
There is a difference between hand manipulating an algo intended for high volume, low clarity keywords and hand manipulation of a specific SERP - though in effect it amounts to the same thing.

What I see for that SERP is:

1. A socially responsible information site aimed at a specifc group of at-risk people (kids/teens looking for sex on the internet)

2. A site dedicated to a popular TV show

3. A popular (and fairly conservative, by internet standards) mens magazine site.

4. A punk rock band

5. A safe sex site aimed at adults

6. A popular news magazine with a mature theme

7. A sex-addict recovery site

8. The sex museum

9. Megans law site - helping catch sex offenders

10. Another socially responsible information site aimed at a specific group of at-risk people.

I'll point out that this is a great SERP. It's socially responsible, it caters to a wide variety of possible reasons the term was entered, etc. I have no issues with this SERP at all.

But I don't think the same decision making process that is used to display less high volume, less vague terms was used. How could it? And no, I don't think the above listing is random, or just picked out of a hat. Human intelligence went into this, whether during a final sorting algo or by hand, IMO.

Not having seen a control panel at Google for this, I can only guess based on my observations.

My opinion,

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Old 10-13-2005   #12
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your argument is compelling.
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Old 10-13-2005   #13
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Suicide is illegal in the UK at least. So should sites that advocate suicide be legal here? If not, what about sites that advocate smoking cannabis? OTOH, if so, what about sites that advocate (or actually contain) child pornography, rape, murder, torture, etc?

The point being, where is the line drawn? Personally, I don't think suicide should be illegal (in all circumstances) but I think child porn should be. Therefore I'm more comfortable with suicide results in the SERPs than I would be with child porn results there. That's a very subjective POV, though, and SERPs are supposed to be objective. Hmmmm.

Putting the legal questions aside, what about the moral questions? I would suggest that a search engine has to give searchers what they are looking for. A search engine should be more of a moral mirror than a moral dictator. Give the people what they want, where "the people" are the target market of searchers on this search engine. So if someone searches for "suicide", the pages and sites that best match their search according to the search engine's objective algorithm should be presented. Likewise, if they search for "assisted suicide", "suicide prevention", "suicide bombings", "suicide rate", etc., the most relevant pages and sites for those terms should be presented. But you might expect a Christian search engine to give a completely different set of results for "suicide" than a secular seach engine gives. It depends on the pages and sites the respective engines are prepared to index in the first place, and that depends on the pages and sites those search engines expect their searchers to want to see.

Once a page is in the index, if the search engine wants to exercise moral influence this can be done in two ways. The algorithm itself can be modified to produce results that its searchers are likely to find more satisfying. Or the search engine can donate free ads to organisations that share the same moral values as itself.
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Old 10-13-2005   #14
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Why not just hand-edit the results and not tell anyone you did?
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Old 10-13-2005   #15
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Originally Posted by sootledir
Why not just hand-edit the results and not tell anyone you did?
then you're relying on secrecy, and where there's a secret, there's an incentive to expose the secret.

i like your idea about search engines serving as moral mirrors, alan. i wonder though how feasible such an idea really is.
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Old 10-13-2005   #16
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Originally Posted by kidmercury
i like your idea about search engines serving as moral mirrors, alan. i wonder though how feasible such an idea really is.
I think it's already the case, or at least what they strive for. If search engines don't give searchers the results they expect/want to see, those searchers will go and find a search engine that does.

So the flip side of the question asked in this thread is "What kind of search results do searchers of Google and other search engines expect or want to see in response to suicide searches?"
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Old 10-14-2005   #17
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Type in "sex" and the very first result is a teen sexuality information site with a PR of 6, beating umpteen million highly optimized porn sites. You think that's a natural result? It might be a good one, but natural? I doubt it.
There is no porn site on the results....first 30 or so... this is too funny
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Old 10-14-2005   #18
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You can preach all you like about high-minded notions of censorship, freedom of speech and cynical manipulation by governments and other paranoid nonsense. You look again at your principles when your at son's or brother's funeral! This is not alarmist. My nephew tried to commit suicide by fixing a plastic bag over his head. Guest where he learned how to do it. Yep, the good old internet. By pure luck he survived.
So lets cut the bull about freedom of speech being paramount over everything else under all circumstances and encourage our governments to do what their supposed to be doing, helping protect the most vulnerable in society. In Europe we have lots of legislation to protect us from our own follies (seat belt laws for example) and do we feel oppressed? Nope!
Long live enlighted government and enlighted companies.
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Old 10-14-2005   #19
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Well...

talking about suicide is actually a good thing. Much better than keeping it all pent up inside, however you choose to talk about it. Some people do searches to find out how to talk to suicidal people or cope after a suicide. They need information. Making it taboo is dangerous.

I think having the samaritans website there is a good idea, but you shouldn't censor things. There also a load of very good and helpful site that appear in the results.

All knowkedge is powerful. You can also learn how to load a gun and how to make napalm and build a bomb.

There's a lot more work to be done in the community as far as suicide goes and in schools and colleges. There needs to be a better infrastructure. There's approx. 1 death by suicide every 40 seconds according to WHO.
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Old 10-14-2005   #20
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I don't think this is a hot-button issue. Even those in favor of legal suicide for the desperately ill wouldn't argue that, say, a depressed teen should be encouraged to act on suicidal impulses. Offering assistance to a searcher who might be in a suicidal frame of mind is basic humanity.

I'd either peg an excellent prevention site at the top of appropriate results, or stick it in the "sponsored result" slot right above the regular SERPs. If I could, I'd be sure the site had an appropriate title to attract clicks from potentially suicidal searchers, and that the link led directly to approriate prevention content rather than a home page that might be a jumble of information, fundraising, etc.
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