Google and the Art of Deception

The Australian Courts have found Google guilty of deceiving search users by placing ‘misleading’ results to searchers.  Essentially, someone looking for “Honda” would be shown an ad for “CarSales” which was competitive to Honda.  Several issues arise here.  There is no contract between Google and the searcher that their search will provide exactly what they are looking for.  Google is not a finder of truth.  Google is an advertising business, a customer-salesman matching business, and it continues to attract customers not because it is a purveyor of truth, but because it invariably helps people to find what they need, which is in many circumstances different from what they are looking for.  The implication of the ruling is that there is some contract that has been breached, or some duty that has been abrogated, in this ‘deception’.

Then there is the issue of intent.  If the searcher does a search for Honda, is that person looking for a Honda, or for a car?  Or perhaps a motorbike, or a lawnmower, or the Japanese mathematician, or the municipality in Columbia?  The searcher may or may not have a specific interest in mind – I just did a Google search for the specific purpose of determining ambiguity – and the technology needs to interpret what the searcher is likely to be interested in.  By extension therefore the machine may determine that in searching for ‘Honda’ that the user is really looking for a used car, with possibly a preference for or interest in Honda.  This could be because they want to sell the Honda they currently own, or to buy one.  In any case, the extent to which the search context is imperfectly described affords latitude for subjective interpretation.

But let’s suppose that Google knows – to a very high degree of probability – that this person is in fact looking to buy a Honda.  That all  things considered, having analysed the options, this person is looking to buy a Honda motor car.  And let’s go further – that this person is likely to be most satisfied with a number one result of ”Honda Australia”.  What obligation does Google have to display that result?  If users determine that their searches are not yielding the results that are useful to them, they will go away and go to another search engine.  This is a fairly straightforward, unencumbered market, notwithstanding Google’s overweight market share.  Not only that, but despite the intentions of the searcher, could they not be persuaded that they’re not really interested in a Honda, but in a Renault?  Is this not the role of advertising anyway, to change people’s minds, to persuade – even to deceive?  You may think you want one of these, but what you really want is one of those.  These aren’t the droids we’re looking for.  You can go about your business.

Desire, intent, need – these are all very subjective things.  Deception, persuasion, salesmanship – are these synonyms?  The first is a dangerous word, one which is likely to be prosecuted in court.  One thinks of con men, swindling old Grannies out of their savings, or fraudsters selling knock off DVDs at the Saturday market.  The courts need to protect people against such nefarious activity, but to a point.  People need to defend themselves too, and bring a healthy dose of skepticism to any market.  I’m not sure such protections belong in the Internet world.

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