Don’t write evil algorithms

Google is said to have dropped the famous “Don’t be evil” slogan. Actually, it is the holding company Alphabet that merely wants employees to “do the right thing”. Regardless of what one thinks about the actual behaviour and ethics of Google, it seems that it got one thing right early on: a recognition that it was moving in a morally charged space.

Google is in many ways an algorithm company: it was founded on PageRank, a clever algorithm for finding relevant web pages, scaled up thanks to MapReduce algorithms, use algorithms for choosing adverts, driving cars and selecting nuances of blue. These algorithms have large real world effects, and the way they function and are used matters morally.

Can we make and use algorithms more ethically?

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What to do with Google—nothing, break it up, nationalise it, turn it into a public utility, treat it as a public space, or something else?

Google has become a service that one cannot go without if one wants to be a well-adapted participant in society. For many, Google is the single most important source of information. Yet people do not have any understanding of the way Google individually curates contents for its users. Its algorithms are secret. For the past year, and as a result of the European Court of Justice’s ruling on the right to be forgotten, Google has been deciding which URLs to delist from its search results on the basis of personal information being “inaccurate, inadequate or no longer relevant.” The search engine has reported that it has received over 250,000 individual requests concerning 1 million URLs in the past year, and that it has delisted around 40% of the URLs that it has reviewed. As was made apparent in a recent open letter from 80 academics urging Google for more transparency, the criteria being used to make these decisions are also secret. We have no idea about what sort of information typically gets delisted, and in what countries. The academics signing the letter point out how Google has been charged with the task of balancing privacy and access to information, thereby shaping public discourse, without facing any kind of public scrutiny. Google rules over us but we have no knowledge of what the rules are.

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Google and the G20

The furore over Syria at the G20 meeting has distracted attention from the potentially highly significant agreement by the leaders of the world’s largest economies to support an ‘ambitious and comprehensive’ plan to address the massive global problem of multinational corporations’ failure to pay tax where they earn it, using transfer pricing and other methods to pay lower tax elsewhere or none at all. Continue reading

The nym wars: how many identities are enough?

The biggest political question this year might not be national debts or the Arab Spring, but what form identity will take on the Internet in the future. As the Google+ service began demanding that people sign in with their legal names and suspending accounts believed to be in conflict with this policy, the “nym wars” broke out. Google is not alone in wanting to keep online identities strongly tied to legal identities: the National Geographic Society demands that comments on ScienceBlogs may no longer be pseudonymous, and Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg has stated:

“Having two identities for yourself is an example of a lack of integrity.”

But can we live a human life with just one identity?

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