On Algorithmic Gatekeepers

Writing for the opinion section of The New York Times, Evgeny Morozov characterizes “one dimensional” algorithms which censor the Web:

The proliferation of the Autocomplete function on popular Web sites is a case in point. Nominally, all it does is complete your search query — on YouTube, on Google, on Amazon — before you’ve finished typing, using an algorithm to predict what you’re most likely typing. A nifty feature — but it, too, reinforces primness.

How so? Consider George Carlin’s classic comedy routine “Seven Words You Can Never Say on Television.” See how many of those words would autocomplete on your favorite Web site. In my case, YouTube would autocomplete none. Amazon almost none (it also hates “penis” and “vagina”). Of Carlin’s seven words, Google would autocomplete only “piss.”

Until recently, even the word “bisexual” wouldn’t autocomplete at Google; it’s only this past August that Google, after many complaints, began to autocomplete some, but not all, queries for that term. In 2010, the hacker magazine 2600 published a long blacklist of similar words. While I didn’t verify all 400 of them on Google, a few that I did try — like “swastika” and “Lolita” — failed to autocomplete. Is Nabokov not trending in Mountain View? Alas, these algorithms are not particularly bright: unable to distinguish between Nabokov’s novel and child pornography, they assume you want the latter.

Why won’t tech companies let us freely use terms that already enjoy wide circulation and legitimacy? Do they fashion themselves as our new guardians? Are they too greedy to correct their algorithms’ mistakes?

Thanks to Silicon Valley, our public life is undergoing a transformation. Accompanying this digital metamorphosis is the emergence of new, algorithmic gatekeepers, who, unlike the gatekeepers of the previous era — journalists, publishers, editors — don’t flaunt their cultural authority. They may even be unaware of it themselves, eager to deploy algorithms for fun and profit.

“I, for one, welcome our new algorithmic overlords.” –Said almost no one.

The Exact Location Where the World Wide Web Was Invented

David Galbraith wrote to Tim Berners-Lee, the inventor of the World Wide Web, who explained that the Web was was technically invented in France, not Switzerland:

I’ll bet if you asked every French politician where the web was invented not a single one would know this. The Franco-Swiss border runs through the CERN campus and building 31 is literally just a few feet into France. However, there is no explicit border within CERN and the main entrance is in Switzerland, so the situation of which country it was invented in is actually quite a tricky one. The current commemorative plaque, which is outside a row of offices where people other than Tim Berners-Lee worked on the web, is in Switzerland. To add to the confusion, in case Tim thought of the web at home, his home was in France but he temporarily moved to rented accommodation in Switzerland, just around the time the web was developed. So although, strictly speaking, France is the birthplace of the web it would be fair to say that it happened in building 31 at CERN but not in any particular country! How delightfully appropriate for an invention which breaks down physical borders. ]

There is a plaque in a corridor in building 2, but no specific offices are indicated and there is some ambiguity as to what happened where, in building 31. Thomas Madsen-Mygdal has a gallery showing locations in building 31 and 513, but there are very few places on the web documenting these places. I took photos of the plaque, such as the one here, with Creative Commons licenses, so that they could be used elsewhere.

Wikipedia is currently updated on the invention of the World Wide Web:

The first web site built was at CERN within the border of France, and was first put online on 6 August 1991:

“Info.cern.ch was the address of the world’s first-ever web site and web server, running on a NeXT computer at CERN. The first web page address was http://info.cern.ch/hypertext/WWW/TheProject.html, which centred on information regarding the WWW project. Visitors could learn more about hypertext, technical details for creating their own webpage, and even an explanation on how to search the Web for information. There are no screenshots of this original page and, in any case, changes were made daily to the information available on the page as the WWW project developed. You may find a later copy (1992) on the World Wide Web Consortium website.” -CERN


Links of the Day (01/12/10)

Two must-read posts from today, one slightly humorous and the other much less so.

(1) “Conan O’Brien Says He Won’t Host ‘Tonight Show’ After Leno” [New York Times] – Conan came out with a marvelous statement saying that hosting The Tonight Show after midnight will “will seriously damage what I consider to be the greatest franchise in the history of broadcasting.” The statement is so bold and refreshing that perhaps he should have started the statement with “Inhabitants of the Universe” rather than the more mundane “People of Earth.”

(2) “A New Approach to China” [Official Google Blog] – in this groundbreaking post, Google outlines a “highly sophisticated and targeted attack” on their infrastructure coming from China. The entire post is a must-read, and the conclusion cannot be missed:

We have decided we are no longer willing to continue censoring our results on Google.cn, and so over the next few weeks we will be discussing with the Chinese government the basis on which we could operate an unfiltered search engine within the law, if at all. We recognize that this may well mean having to shut down Google.cn, and potentially our offices in China.

Robert Scoble called it the “bravest corporate move I’ve ever seen a tech company make.” I think it’s a very strong statement, but we shall see how Google actually responds in the coming weeks.

Update: Another worthy reaction to the Google news comes via Jeff Jarvis, author of What Would Google Do?. Jeff Jarvis writes:

I have been consistent in my criticism of Google’s actions in China. And so now I have not choice but to become even more of a fanboy. I applaud Google for finally standing up to the Chinese dictatorship and for free speech.

Will the Chinese people revolt at losing Google? We can only hope. Will other companies now have to hesitate before doing the dictators’ bidding? We can only hope. Will Google be punished by Wall Street? It probably will. But as I’ve argued, we should hope that Google’s pledge, Don’t be evil, will one day be chiseled over the doors of Wall Street.