Google Autocomplete Suggestions Are Still Racist, Sexist, and Science-Denying

In a statement, Google said it would remove some of the above search prompts that specifically violate its policies. A spokesperson added, “We are always looking to improve the quality of our results and last year, added a way for users to flag autocomplete results they find inaccurate or offensive.” A link that lets Google users report predictions appears in small grey letters at the bottom of the autocomplete list.

The company declined to comment on which searches it removed, but by Monday, a quick audit revealed Google has removed the predictions “Islamists are evil,” “white supremacy is good,” “Hitler is my hero,” and “Hitler is my god.” The rest of the predictions WIRED flagged apparently do not violate the company’s policies and are still live. Even the now-edited predictions are still far from perfect. “Islamists are terrorists” and “white supremacy is right,” for instance, still stand.1

If there’s any silver lining here, it’s that the actual web pages these searches turn up are often less shameful than the prompts that lead there. The top result for “Black lives matter is a hate group,” for instance, leads to a link by the Southern Poverty Law Center that explains why it does not consider Black Lives Matter a hate group. That’s not always the case, however. “Hitler is my hero” dredges up headlines like “10 Reasons Why Hitler Was One of the Good Guys,” one of many pages Cadwalladr pointed out more than a year ago.

These autocomplete suggestions aren’t hard-coded by Google. They’re the result of Google’s algorithmic scans of the entire world of content on the internet and its assessment of what, specifically, people want to know when they search for a generic term. “We offer suggestions based on what other users have searched for,” Gingras said at Thursday’s hearing. “It’s a live and vibrant corpus that changes everyday.” Often, apparently, for the worse.

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If autocomplete were exclusively a reflection of what people search for, it would have “no moral grounding at all,” says Suresh Venkatasubramanian, who teaches ethics in data science at the University of Utah. But Google does impose limits on the autocomplete results it finds objectionable. It corrected suggestions related to “are jews,” for instance, and fixed another of Cadwalladr’s disturbing observations: In 2016, simply typing “did the hol” brought up a suggestion for “did the Holocaust happen,” a search that surfaced a link to the Nazi website Daily Stormer. Today, autocomplete no longer completes the search that way; if you type it in manually, the top search result is the Holocaust Museum’s page on combatting Holocaust denial.

Typically when Google makes these adjustments, it’s changing the algorithm so that the fix carries through to an entire class of searches, not just one. “I don’t think anyone is ignorant enough to think, ‘We fixed this one thing. We can move on now,'” says the Google spokesperson.

But each time Google inserts itself in this way, Venkatasubramanian says, it raises an important question: “What is the principle they feel is wrong? Can they articulate the principle?”

Google does have a set policies around its autocomplete predictions. Violent, hateful, sexually explicit, or dangerous predictions are banned, but those descriptors can quickly become fuzzy. Is a prediction that says “Hitler is my hero” inherently hateful, because Hitler himself was?

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