Law in the Internet Society

Taking Actions, or Your Search Engine Might Grow into A Gluttonous Monster

-- By YingLiu

Introduction: Louder, Please

Speaking of the capabilities of invading privacy and deteriorating human thinking, search engines could be more horrifying than social networks. Dominant players in the search market have tied together user dependency on their search engines with the surveillance economy for years. Despite these practices becoming normalized, many users are still unaware of the risks and concerns imposed by search engines. A survey conducted in 2019 showed that over 30% of searchers are still unaware of how much data collection is going on and for what purpose. It’s time to shout out louder to urge netizens to be wary of their search box.

Concern I: The Search Privacy and Data Collection 

Upon the revelation of the Cambridge Analytica scandal, social network platforms became the main target of criticism on data collection. Unfortunately, privacy concerns imposed by search engines have not received the same level of attention though the privacy issues caused by it could be more horrifying. Users can easily create a semifictional persona on Facebook while they neither hide nor fabricate anything when typing in the search box. With the misconception that there is no audience behind the search box, they relievedly are honest with Google and search for everything they are interested in or curious about. 

However, throughout almost every point of a user’s journey, search engines are instinctively and accurately tracking behavior and preferences and over a period of time an online user profile is developed. AOL once published users’ search log and the New York Times successfully connected user No. 4417749 with a 62-year-old lady. As the lady put it, these search records exposed her “whole life”.

Google claimed that it collected user data to improve its understanding of queries.  Perhaps it's true. But another truth is that it is selling search data for profits. In 2019, over 72% of Google’s advertising revenues were from google search. Almost all mainstream search engines are harvesting user data on a tremendous scale to gain a share in the surveillance economy. 

Concern II: The Quality of Search Results and Its Impact on Human Thinking

Some netizens were socialized to accept that they must use personal data to exchange for free, convenient, and so-called personalized searching services. But they underestimated the negative impacts of such compromise. When acquiescing in the search engine’s data collection, you are not merely handing in your search queries to it and third-party advertisers, but also sacrificing your search quality.

The search engine is not simply an ads displayer but a participant in the user’s cognitive process — and search results on the first page will to some extent determine or distort the searchers’ understanding of the subject issue. Generation Z rely on and trust in search engines as much as how their grandfathers trusted textbooks and teachers. One needs to receive professional training to qualify as a teacher and textbooks have credible editorial procedures to ensure the accuracy of the contents. However, the search ranking decisions are made by algorithms, which failed to undertake the filter, weigh and judge responsibilities to ensure the top-ranking results are unbiased, accurate and trustworthy. 

All algorithms involve human intervention thus they are never purely scientific or absolutely neutral. The algorithms reflect the value orientation of both engineers and the profit-seeking tech companies they serve. It may be based on the user's browsing history, competitive ranking mechanism and even random factors. When you Google for "the best restaurant nearby," the first hit might not be the one with the highest Yelp score, but the one which paid Google for advertising, or the one you had once visited its website.

The Wei Zexi incident is a typical and extreme example of how the results provided by search engines may affect people's cognition and follow-up behavior. Mr. Wei, a Chinese college student, lost his life after receiving dubious cancer treatment from a hospital advertised on Baidu with misleading medical information. One can be killed by his search behavior and the commercially-driven search results.

Is There A Way Out?

An undeniable fact is that search engines enable humankind to access the boundless information pool at an unprecedented speed. If quitting search engines is not a wise move, can searchers take initiatives to protect search privacy and optimize search quality?  

The answer is positive. You can achieve the goal by implementing privacy-protection tools and decentralizing your searches.

Search engines might be a necessity in your life, but Google is not. Pioneers like Duckduckgo and Oscobo are offering search engines that do not track or store users’ data. However, just switching to another engine is not enough since your browser and devices are eavesdroppers on your search queries.

A privacy-oriented browser like Firefox is helpful, and what helps more is not to use a browser that shares the same developer with your search engine. Meanwhile, no matter which browser you are using, remember login is never a good choice. A one-pass account offers convenience, but it also means your search history might be shared among various parties. If you have to use both search and login-required functions like webmail provided by the same provider, you should use different browsers to separate search activities from other services. 

Even with the best search engines and web browsers, your devices and IP address may reveal your identity and online behavior. To further anonymize your search queries, you should turn on the cookies-blocking function in your browser to avoid unwanted behavior tracking and establish a web proxy to routes your surfing traffic thus hiding your real IP address from the sites you visit. 

Using a universal search engine does provide convenience to some extent, but it also greatly increases the risk exposure to results manipulation. Dispersing search queries on various vertical search engines is a good way to avoid revealing your full user profile to one tech company. A bonus point is that vertical search engines also return more precise and calibrated results due to narrowed scope and vertical expertise.  

Coming out of the comfort zone by abandoning a tool we are used to is never a pleasure, but if doing so can relieve the worries on who’s watching over us every time we search, wondering what the repercussions are and how our own data will be used to manipulate our own thinking, it is worthwhile to make the change.

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r5 - 11 Jan 2021 - 01:35:19 - YingLiu
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