Google has gained an aura of objectivity from claims to organize information around the world and make it useful and accessible to all.
Its dominance in search and the disappearance of most competitors makes its links seem more plausible. But An experimental new tool aims to expose non-neutrality.
Atlas search is easy Search Atlas Seeing how Google provides different responses to the same query in the versions of its search engine displayed in different parts of the world.
The research project reveals how Google can reflect or amplify cultural differences or government preferences.
The mixed results show how invalid the notion of search engine neutrality is, says Rodrigo Oshigami, a doctoral student in science, technology and society at MIT and co-author of Search Atlas.
Oshigami built Search Atlas with Catherine Yee, a doctoral student in computer science at Carnegie Mellon University.
And like the Google homepage, the main feature of Search Atlas is an empty box. But instead of returning a single column of results, the site displays three lists of links, from different geographic versions of Google Search selected from more than 100 versions offered by the company.
Search Atlas automatically translates your query into the default languages for each translated version using Google Translate.
The design exposes the limits of information generated by the way Google’s search technology categorizes web pages, presenting different information from reality to people in different locations or using different languages.
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When the tool was used to perform an image search in Tiananmen Square, the British and Singaporean version of a Google search returned images of tanks and soldiers crushing student protests in 1989.
And when the same query was sent to a version of Google Search tuned to perform searches from China, which can be accessed by circumventing the country’s Great Firewall, the results showed recent, sunny images of a square filled with tourists.
Google’s search engine has been blocked in China since 2010, when the company said it would stop censoring topics the government deemed sensitive.
Search Atlas suggests that the China-specific version of the company’s search engine could reflect the preferences of the Chinese government.
This pattern can partly result from how a collection of web pages from any language or region reflect cultural priorities and pressures.
A company spokesman said the differences in results were not due to oversight. The content about the Tiananmen Square massacre is available via Google search in any language or location.
The spokesperson added that in some cases, tourist photos are gaining popularity, when the search engine detects the intention to travel, which is more apparent to researchers closest to Beijing or queries written in Chinese.
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Google search results vary
A search for Tiananmen Square from Thailand or the United States using Google’s Chinese language settings yields recent images of the historic site.
“We translate results to your preferred region and language so you can quickly access the most reliable information,” the spokesperson said. Users can adjust the results by adjusting the location and language settings.
Search Atlas has built maps and visualizations that show how search results can vary around the world.
One of them shows how searching for images of “God” results in bearded Christian images in Europe and the Americas. Images of Buddha in some Asian countries. An Arabic text of God’s word in the Persian Gulf and Northeast Africa.
A Google spokesperson said the results reflect how the translation service converts the English term God into words with more specific meanings for some languages, such as God in Arabic.
The research atlas was presented last month at the Academic Conference on Interactive Systems Design. Developers are testing a private beta of the service and thinking about how to expand access to it.
And Search Atlas cannot reveal why different versions of Google portray the world differently.
The company’s profitable rating systems are closely maintained. The company says little about how it adjusts results based on geography, language or a person’s activity.
And Google is not likely to lose control of the search market anytime soon. But there are reasons that might change that.
And the growing user base of privacy-focused search company DuckDuckGo suggests that some Internet users are open to alternatives.
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