Two researchers have developed a tool that allows you to compare results across different countries for the same Google query. The differences are impressive, and show the existence of geopolitical boundaries on the Internet.
Search engines are not neutral, and neither are the results they display. This is the conclusion, not surprisingly, of a study project led by two researchers, Rodrigo Ochigame and Katherine Ye, made public at the end of June 2021 and spotted by Wired in mid-July. Search Atlas, a prototype of the tools they developed, allows you to see how the results vary from country to country, and on either side of what they call ” geopolitical boundaries “.
” We have developed a search engine that allows you to search across many languages and different places “, said on Twitter Katherine Ye on July 2. ” While doing our research, we discovered some surprising ‘regions’ and ‘borders’ in Google results. “
Search Atlas allows you to see, for each query on Google, what the results are in three different countries. The results are automatically translated, and we can also do searches for images, which allows to have an even more striking visual representation of the different results.
Excited to announce Search Atlas, a new project (w / Rodrigo Ochigame) in DIS ’21!
We built a search engine that lets you search across languages & locations.
Making searches worldwide, we discovered surprising “borders” & “regions” in Google’s results.https: //t.co/7oPpm8pW42 pic.twitter.com/2wqed8HnUN
– Katherine Ye (@hypotext) July 2, 2021
“Internet is full of invisible borders”
On their website, Search Atlas researchers have illustrated some of these ” geopolitical boundaries With glaring examples. We can also see the differences in results for ” god ”(God, in French) for Google searches carried out in Bulgaria, Azerbaijan, and Mongolia.
In Bulgaria, the results show first representations of Jesus or the Christian god. In Azerbaijan, Google displays calligraphy of the word “Allah” first, while in Mongolia images of Buddha appear first.
In ” Visualize the different results across geopolitical boundaries “, The title of their study, the two researchers explain that the Internet is” full of invisible boundaries – geographic, linguistic, cultural, political – that influence the information that users see. Search engines shape these “information frontiers” by tailoring the information to be shown to users based on their geolocation, language, and other criteria. They write.
But these ” borders Are not the only things that Google and the search engines take into account in their indexing responses. Rodrigo Ochigame and Katherine Ye explain in their article that research results are influenced by a very large number of factors – and these vary by country.
Differences that can be dangerous
” These results are the product of the interests of the user, but also of a complex struggle between researchers, corporations, and States. », They note. And so, the results that a user will have will be influenced by ” the assumptions of engineers, which in turn are shared by companies, official regulations, and researcher methods and theories, in addition to user history, geolocation, language, and others settings “.
This asymmetry between users can make it possible to find results that better correspond to the expectations of some, but it is also very dangerous in countries where the political regime wishes to make disinformation. Wired reporters, who wrote about Search Atlas, were also able to test the tool, which is not yet available. And their results were particularly disturbing.
Their research focused on “Tian’anmen Square”, one of the most important squares in Beijing and where major protests against the regime were held in 1989 – and where the famous photo of a man alone in front of tanks of the army was taken. They carried out their research in the United Kingdom, Singapore, and China (although Google is banned in the country by the power in place, some Internet users still manage to access the search engine thanks to VPNs), and the results are very striking.
The results in the UK and Singapore show photos of the square in 1989, during the crackdown on student protests, as well as the photo of the lone man facing the tanks. Google’s results in China show photos of the square now, sunny and full of tourists – and there is no mention of the protests.
Contacted by Wired reporters, Google claimed that the results in China were not due to censorship, and that information about the Tian’anmen Square massacre was readily available from Google China. The Google spokesperson told Wired that “ tourist images carry more weight in certain situations, such as when the search engine detects an intention to travel, which is more likely for users based near Beijing or for searches performed in Chinese “. Wired also noticed that the first Google results for ” Tian’anmen Square Were tourist images in Thailand, as well as those taken from the United States in Chinese.
Search engines are not impartial
For now, Search Atlas is only a prototype, still in the testing phase. However, the project was presented last month at the “Designing Interactive Systems” academic conference, and Rodrigo Ochigame and Katherine Ye indicated that they were considering how best to open up access to the tool.
” By showing that search engines are not impartial, Search Atlas invites users to use from multiple places, and reflect on their Internet experience, and how their lives are influenced by technological infrastructure and geopolitics. », Conclude Rodrigo Ochigame and Katherine Ye.
The power that search engines, and primarily Google, have over everyday life is too often underestimated, Judge Katherine Ye in Wired. ” People ask search engines questions they wouldn’t dare ask people they know, and the things they see on Google can change lives. It can be searches such as “How to have an abortion”, “how to vote”, “how to get vaccinated” “. It is therefore becoming more and more urgent that search engine biases be measured, and that users be warned.