Wednesday, 3 February 2016

The Magical Algorithms of Abracadabra Osborne

"Do no evil" is Google's motto, but as you may have noticed, the last week has seen a couple of queries rise about its activities in the United Kingdom.

Chancellor George Osborne
First Chancellor George Osborne eagerly flourished his announcement that he had finally got the internet search giant to cough up £130 millions in back tax after a decade of negotiation (and non-payment). Which was spoiled somewhat when Labour (who to be fair extracted nil from Google in their final term in office) pointed out that this represented a tax rate of just 3% compared to the 20% paid by most businesses (well, apart from Facebook, Amazon, Starbucks and a host of other big ones). "Mates rates" one commentator declared.

Bad enough, but then a curious item was highlighted raising a new query - as part of the tax deal, had the Tory Government done a deal on Google search algorithms to put them in a better light than their rivals?

This was what prompted this debate - Google search has an autocomplete facility on search terms. If you type words in, it suggests further words, presumably based on the most frequently searched terms, to suggest what you are looking for to save you time.

So, for the Opposition parties, it comes up like this:

Labour are not very positive:

Lib Dems are in trouble:

Greens do better, but may be being muddled with the veg counter:

UKIP - you can see both supporters and opponents have been searching them:

While the poor SNP have been thoroughly stalked by unpleasant online trolls, whatever the Unionists try to claim to the contrary:

But the Tories? The Government party that may have its supporters but has so polarised opinion with its extreme policies... well, you'd imagine there's be all sorts in there. But...

Complete, utter BLANK, BLANK, BLANK! Not a sausage is suggested, unlike all their opponents.
Now, when you put in the "Conservative Party is" , you do get a more plausible result.

And indeed, Google insists the results are altered by an automatic algorithm which may have removed popular suggestions because they were obscene. Possibly true - after all, who wouldn't want to stick some pretty nasty terms in when searching out the Tories' crimes? Yet given the tax row, Google might have been advised to pay some manual attention to this term at the moment rather than leave it to the software.

However, what is even more suspicious, is when you try to search out party leaders' personal names.

Cameron comes off neutralish..

Corbyn... not so positive, is it? Although he might be pleased with the final suggestion.

However, the oddest and most telling search autocomplete comes out with the Chancellor himself, the man who agreed Google's deal (and pays them tens of millions to help collect tax from other people for the HMRC).

Yes, it seems Google thinks Curious George is a first degree sorcerer, a master practitioner of the dark arts. And who are we to disagree? Certainly for Google, it must seem like he's been sprinkling a fine coating of fairy dust all over their account books.