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Google Images Vindicated in Latest "Censorship" Alert

British Columnist Thinks He Has Big Google-Censorship Story, NOT – British Blogosphere Sets Him Straight

Charles Arthur, editor of "Technology Guardian" - a section of the UK national daily newspaper The Guardian - thought he was on to something big. But the blogosphere quickly corrected him. The net result? A triumph for Capitalism - literally!! Read on for the explanation...

Here's what Arthur wrote yesterday at 11:34AM GMT:

"If you really want to see ... censorship in all its Orwellian fullness, compare these: a Google.cn image search for 'tiananmen' and a Google.com image search for tiananmen."

Incensed by the Chinese-Google set of search results, which Arthur felt corroborated recent accusations "of Google's kowtowing to censorship by agreeing to filter out certain results in its Chinese search" (Arthur's words), he thundered:
"Just as a reminder, Tiananmen Square was the site of pro-democracy protests by Chinese students in 1989; it was ruthlessly put down by the government of the time. While it is a square which has a long and valuable history, you might expect that some of that history would include something about what happened there 16 years ago. But no."
The only problem is, Arthur was wrong. Totally wrong.

Already at 12:19 PM GMT a member of the British Blogosphere posted that what Arthur had been doing was searching in Chinese Google Images for tiananmen with a lower-case 't' (http://images.google.cn/images?q=tiananmen) - whereas all he had needed to do, it turns out, was to search for Tiananmen with a capital T (http://images.google.cn/images?q=Tiananmen).

It took less than 45 minutes, in other words, to completely debunk Arthur's mistake.

Is this just, as arch-blogger Alan Williamson couldn't resist suggesting, the latest evidence of the triumph of Capitalism? Or is it something more interesting, namely a "sneak peek" into the recondite world of Google's search algorithms?

This might be an example, as it turns out, of the flip side of 'The Wisdom of Crowds.' And of what one Technology Guardian reader, New York-educated but writing from Rome, called "general Googleness":

"i wonder if it (the difference in search results between a "T" and a "t") has to do with intentional censorship or general Googleness. Meaning that people who search for 'tiananmen' are looking for the site in terms of what it's represented more generally (and/or before the demonstrations), whereas people looking for the site in terms of the event 16 years ago, tend to capitalize it.

The closest analogy i can come up with (right this minute anyway) is the way New Yorkers capitalize "the City" when they're referring to "their" city: "Well when you next come to the City we can see a play." I don't know why one group would tend to capitalize and the other not, but Google's way of 'self-learning' and refining search-results based on what people ultimately click on as being 'what they were looking for'... that might at least explain the difference, perhaps?"
We shall see today if any of Google's search luminaries are prepared to comment: it looks to me very much like The Law of Unintended Consequences, but nonetheless this is an object lesson in the duality of "Web 2.0" - which holds unlimited potential as well as equally unlimited disbenefits unless we are all very careful as it hurtles towards us. It is well-known in journalism circles (but not yet perhaps well-known enough in blogging circles) that original inaccuracies tend to be remembered far longer and more clearly than subsequent corrections. When the editor of something as authoritative as Technology Guardian tells you that "Google is kowtowing to the Communists," how many people would think to doubt it?

There's a lesson here for us all. In blogs, as in life, it pays always to Trust, But Verify.

More Stories By Jeremy Geelan

Jeremy Geelan is Chairman & CEO of the 21st Century Internet Group, Inc. and an Executive Academy Member of the International Academy of Digital Arts & Sciences. Formerly he was President & COO at Cloud Expo, Inc. and Conference Chair of the worldwide Cloud Expo series. He appears regularly at conferences and trade shows, speaking to technology audiences across six continents. You can follow him on twitter: @jg21.

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Most Recent Comments
Charles Arthur 03/15/06 08:08:10 AM EST

Hmm. I'll be interested by all the links you find on google.cn to descriptions of what did happen in Tiananmen Square that day. Very interested.

Anyway is it time, in the light of the comments above, for you to correct your story?

hmm 02/13/06 04:20:27 PM EST

Umm. now you are wrong. Tiananmen returns no tanks.

guardian 02/08/06 09:26:19 AM EST

Well, it looks like Google corrected their mistake, and now they return on the chinese page the exact same result for "Tianmen" as for "tianmen"... i.e. the censored one. So much for not censoring.

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