At the Google Instant Launch on Wednesday, I ran into my former colleague, the writer and internet famous video star Irina Slutsky. We sat together, and so naturally when we were trying out Google Instant during the launch, I tried typing her name in. And an odd thing happened - Google whited out the Instant search results.
Irina asked about this, and Johanna Wright of Google replied that they white out some words related to sex and hate speech, in case inappropriate results appeared for people who weren't expecting it. 'Slut' is one of these words, but it is not clear at all why 'Slutsky' is.
I already wrote about my concerns that Google's predictive words could narrow the range of searched-for terms into clichés - that as you type Google, in Stoppard's words, is
announcing every stale revelation of the newly enlightened, like stout Cortez coming upon the Pacific — war is profits, politicians are puppets, Parliament is a farce, justice is a fraud, property is theft… It’s all here: the Stock Exchange, the arms dealers, the press barons… You can’t fool Brodie — patriotism is propaganda, religion is a con trick, royalty is an anachronism… Pages and pages of it. It’s like being run over very slowly by a travelling freak show of favourite simpletons, the India rubber pedagogue, the midget intellectual, the human panacea…
At least these suggestions are based on integrating over the text of the web; the words that get the silent whiteout treatment seem to have been chosen by a committee though, and clearly an American one at that, as it whites out 'ass' but not 'arse, 'shit' but not 'shite', 'slut' but not 'slag' and so on (I didn't type every smutty British slang word in, life is too short).
However, the modern-day Bowdlers at Google don't white you out based on what you type, but on what they predict you're going to type.
If I type 'blue-footed' - it predicts I'm typing 'blue-foooted booby' and as 'boobies' is an Official Google Smutty Word, my search goes white (in fact 'blue-foo' is enough).
Similarly, typing 'turn again d' implies 'turn again Dick Whittington', and 'dick' is a an Official Google Smutty Word.
The same is true for Irina -so shocking is her last name that all you have to type is 'irina sl' and the Google whiteout erases her from results.
Weirdly, if you type 'who killed cock' it is completed to 'who killed cock-robin' with a hyphen inserted, which implies someone has edited the auto-complete list manually.
My worldview and sense of appropriateness is probably close enough to Google's committee that I'm not going to be too bothered by this, but I do wonder about them deciding what the norms of speech are for everyone in the world.