Google gave users dif­fer­ent search re­sults on gun con­trol, im­mi­gra­tion

Lodi News-Sentinel - - BUSINESS - By Chris­tian Het­rick PHILLY.COM

Google users get dif­fer­ent re­sults when they search for the same terms, even when logged out of their Google ac­count and in pri­vate brows­ing mode, ac­cord­ing to a study by Duck­DuckGo, a Google ri­val based in Paoli, Pa.

Google said the study was flawed. Duck­DuckGo said most of its 87 sur­vey par­tic­i­pants re­ceived unique lists of links when search­ing Google for "gun con­trol," "im­mi­gra­tion," and "vac­ci­na­tion." For ex­am­ple, 76 peo­ple across the United States saw 62 dif­fer­ent sets of search re­sults for "gun con­trol," de­spite us­ing Google's pri­vate brows­ing mode, called "Incog­nito." The users sub­mit­ted the iden­ti­cal queries at the same time, and the sur­vey didn't count dif­fer­ent lo­cal web­sites as a vari­a­tion in re­sults, Duck­DuckGo said.

One per­son who searched for "gun con­trol" saw a link to the Na­tional Ri­fle As­so­ci­a­tion at the top of the re­sults page, with Wikipedia listed later. An­other's top re­sult was Wikipedia with­out any link to the NRA on the first re­sults page. A third got the NRA link, but noth­ing from Wikipedia. Duck­DuckGo did not pro­vide in­for­ma­tion about the par­tic­i­pants' po­lit­i­cal lean­ings.

Even if re­sults gen­er­ate the same list of links, the or­der they oc­cur in can have a ma­jor in­flu­ence on which one a user clicks, ac­cord­ing to Duck­DuckGo. It said a given link can get twice as many clicks as the link after it.

Duck­DuckGo is a na­tion­al­ly­known pri­vacy-cen­tric internet search site that says it doesn't store or share user data. CEO Gabriel Wein­berg is a fre­quent critic of internet pri­vacy prac­tices.

The sur­vey used a tiny sam­ple size and was not sci­en­tific. Duck­DuckGo so­licited vol­un­teers on Twit­ter and par­tic­i­pants sub­mit­ted screen­shots of their search re­sults. But Wein­berg said the "in­tense vari­a­tion" of search re­sults sug­gests re­sults may be per­son­al­ized to a user or de­vice. He said Duck­DuckGo chose po­lit­i­cal top­ics to show the level of in­flu­ence Google could have on vot­ers.

"We don't as­cribe any in­ten­tion around in­flu­enc­ing po­lit­i­cal top­ics. It's more a nat­u­ral con­se­quence of these al­go­rithms," Wein­berg said. "That said, it's a bit reck­less."

Google said Duck­DuckGo's sug­ges­tions that the search re­sults were per­son­al­ized is "sim­ply not true."

"This study's method­ol­ogy and con­clu­sions are flawed since they are based on the as­sump­tion that any dif­fer­ence in search re­sults are based on per­son­al­iza­tion," a Google spokesper­son said in a state­ment. "In fact, there are a num­ber of fac­tors that can lead to slight dif­fer­ences, in­clud­ing time and lo­ca­tion, which this study doesn't ap­pear to have con­trolled for ef­fec­tively."

The web gi­ant said a user who is logged out and search­ing in Incog­nito mode won't re­ceive cus­tom­ized re­sults based on a user's prior signedin search his­tory. In ad­di­tion, the com­pany said it does not per­son­al­ize ar­ti­cles listed in the "Top Sto­ries" sec­tion in search or in the news tab.

Google cited other fac­tors that could lead to users re­ceiv­ing dif­fer­ent re­sults for the same search terms. The ex­act tim­ing of the query could af­fect re­sults, es­pe­cially for rapidly evolv­ing news top­ics (like gun con­trol and im­mi­gra­tion). The user's prox­im­ity to data cen­ters that are re­freshed con­stantly could also play a role, as well as lo­cal­iza­tion of query re­sults.

Google CEO Sun­dar Pichai is sched­uled to tes­tify to Congress next week and is ex­pected to face ques­tions about Repub­li­cans' con­cerns that the com­pany's search al­go­rithm cen­sors con­ser­va­tive-lean­ing users.

Google's Incog­nito mode doesn't save brows­ing ac­tiv­ity on the user's de­vice and deletes cook­ies and site data when a user ex­its the pri­vate brows­ing mode. Google said it still uses a de­vice's lo­ca­tion so it can pro­vide rel­e­vant re­sults for queries like "restau­rants near me." And search re­sults in Incog­nito mode may be con­tex­tu­al­ized by prior searches dur­ing that brows­ing ses­sion.

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