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Markkula Center for Applied Ethics

Unavoidable Ethical Questions about Search Engines

This resource is based on the approaches to ethics outlined in the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics’ Framework for Ethical Decision Making.

From a Utilitarian Perspective

Google, Yahoo, and Amazon have all announced or begun programs to digitize the contents of books so that they can be searched and downloaded by anyone with a computer. In response to Google's announcement, the Authors Guild and the American Association of Publishers filed lawsuits over the scanning of copyrighted books. What are the benefits of allowing free access to books on line? What are the harms?

From a Rights Perspective

Free Speech and Access to Information

All the major search engine companies have agreed to censor certain sites when they operate in some foreign countries. The Chinese government has insisted on blocking certain political sites; the German government on blocking Nazi or other hate sites. Citing child pornography and unscrupulous contractors as examples, Bill Gates recently told the Financial Times, "There are Web sites that any government wants to block." Do people have a right to all information? If not, what kinds of information should be restricted and who should decide?

Recently the U.S. government subpoenaed search records from Google, Yahoo, and MSN as part of an effort to control children's access to pornography on the Internet. Yahoo and MSN complied, but Google argued that the subpoena infringed on user privacy. To what extent are individuals' search records deserving of strong privacy protection? What about aggregated search records?

From a Fairness Perspective
All Web site owners would like to have the Number 1 position in the major search engines. In order to achieve that, many try to optimize their sites so they will achieve higher page ranking. The search engines set rules for search engine optimization (SEO); for example, webmasters are not supposed to insert invisible text, create link exchanges with irrelevant sites, etc. (For instance, to pack one's index keywords with words like sex, drugs, and rock 'n roll, even though the site might be about a new math textbook.) Some argue that these practices-called black-hat SEO-undermine the fairness of the results. Others say these tactics are not immoral because they are only breaking the arbitrary rules set by the search engines. What are the standards for a "fair" search environment, and who should set them?

From a Common Good Perspective
Search engines that produce unbiased, relevant results have become a common resource worth protecting. The information on the World Wide Web would be essentially inaccessible without them. What social policies and business practices will preserve that common good? Are sponsored links part of paying for the public good?

From a Virtue Perspective

The search engine industry depends upon trust. Users come to a particular search engine because they trust that they will get unbiased results. What virtues does a search engine company have to practice in order to gain this trust?

Jan 1, 2010
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