Search Engines: Ethical Implications

By Chiru, Claudiu | Economics, Management and Financial Markets, March 2016 | Go to article overview

Search Engines: Ethical Implications


Chiru, Claudiu, Economics, Management and Financial Markets


1. Introduction

Search engines represent powerful programs for selecting and filtering information, being difficult to imagine today's world without them. The act of surfing the Internet appears to be anonymous, but recent findings reveal that there are certain risks of disclosure of users' personal information. Analyzed by experts, search engines make use of different methods to collect information about users (cookies, search strings, IP addresses). So, why use search engines if these are threats to personal information security?

The Web has become a huge entity. According to Internet Live Statistics (Internet Live Stats-a, Internet Live Stats-b, 2015), the Internet has more than 3,000,000,000 users and there are more than 900,000 active sites.

The enormous amount of information that is available for a user makes search unpractical in the absence of a search engine. The initial purpose of the Web was to link unconnected information from various web pages and not to get information from other addresses than the ones introduced by the user.

Although the search engine is a very useful instrument for information retrieval, it follows the owner's policy. Thus, the companies that own the search engines are the target of numerous critics concerning the large amount of private information stored, as well as the opacity and restrictive policy of these companies.

2. Search Engine Technology

A search engine is a tool for searching information online. Search engines rely on automated programs called "spiders" (robots or crawlers) that browse the Web online by following links from one website to another. Search robots have custom names, so Google has the engine robot called "Googlebot" and Yahoo the engine robot called "Slurp".

Search robots collect and categorize information on each web page and then store the information in a database called "search index" (search index). Search index is updated and reviewed constantly to provide users with accurate and recent information. Therefore, in a search for a particular keyword, the search engine will return to the relevant search pages. Such results lists contain hundreds of thousands or millions of websites, which is why search engine positioning uses some rules (ranking) to arrange the results in order of importance, and to provide users with the best results first. These rules have complex algorithms for search and evaluation.

Search algorithms partially evaluate and assign a score to each portion or feature of a web page. Finally, the search algorithms calculate an overall score that expresses the relevance of the page and its contents for the set of keywords used in the search. The pages with the best score will be placed on top of the search results list; the highest overall score corresponding webpage will be the first in the list. Search algorithms evaluate more than 100 features and attributes of a web page to calculate the overall score. The list of factors that influence the position of a page in the list of search results is not known, being kept secret, only some general information is published by search engines as recommendations and guidelines for developers and designers of web pages.

Search algorithms used by search engines are exposed to numerous critics who think that search engines favor sites or exclude sites from the list of relevant webpages according to subjective criteria (Introna, L. and H. Nissenbaum, 2000).

In their paper "Shaping the Web: Why the Politics of Search Engines Matters" the authors claim that rich companies can influence the outcome of the search engines. What is found is influenced in most of the cases by the "rich and powerful". From the top 100 sites there are only six that are noncommercial sites.

3. Privacy and Disclosure of Personal Information

There are two aspects that need our attention concerning search engines operation. The former involves companies that collect information about people and the latter involves people who collect information about other people. …

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