The abundance of the web is astonishing. Everything is just a few clicks away in immense galaxies of goods, knowledge and people. The problem is finding anything specific in all that dazzling array, and so there are handy services to search the fullness for the riches it bears. And sometimes, in their eagerness to please, the giant commercial interests that operate these systems may offer too much of the wrong things or to the wrong people.
Several worrying examples surfaced recently. Whether through greed or shortsightedness, marketing giant Google was found to not only allow advertisers to target ads directly at racists using keyword search terms, but to automatically suggest additional bigoted keywords. When brought to Google’s attention, the company blamed its algorithms.
The same thing happened with Facebook. In fact, the dominant social media platform in the world was shocked to discover that Russian trolls had opened hundreds of fake accounts and targeted thousands of ads in its effort to influence the 2016 elections. They’ve since shared some of this information with Congress but not the public, yet there’s every indication that what they’ve found so far is the merest tip of the iceberg.
Online superstore Amazon got hit with goofs twice lately. In one instance, the store sent mistaken notification of gifts from its baby registry to people who weren’t expecting. Amazon blamed it on a technical glitch. As might be imagined, the situation created a lot of confusion and anxiety among recipients, especially since Target got into trouble with consumers once over much the same thing. As we reported years ago, the difference was that Target’s algorithms weren’t mistaken – its programs really could identify pregnant customers from their changing purchase patterns.
In the other Amazon case, in Britain, the company was accused of selling bomb-making chemicals and helpfully suggesting other products useful to terrorists. The company quickly promised to review its policies. However, it was pointed out by chemists that the panic was over simple household ingredients to make gunpowder, and that, in fact, Amazon was catering to amateur fireworks makers and chemistry teachers rather than to terrorists. And that a little more explanation by the site would have prevented any such misunderstanding.
Yet, this brings up an important point. Way back in the 1960s, chemistry sets for kids contained alcohol lamps, various acids, and even uranium ore, all in breakable glass containers. By the 1980s, this had changed. While it cannot be denied that removing these things made them safer, some people think that it had a chilling effect on scientific education and recruitment.
It’s also telling that the concerns about feeding antisocial actors have surfaced now, in the wake of homegrown terrorism and state-sponsored hijinks. Who would think to go searching for bomb-making materials, other than someone with a terrorist mindset? The infamous filter bubbles we all live in these days, where we’re only shown what we have expressed interest in, make it far less likely that a “normal” person would stumble upon something like that by accident.
We like to think that all people tend to be idealistic and good-hearted, but society must eternally be on guard against those who would use good things for evil ends. All this technology is brand-new, still being worked out, but the bad guys are taking to it as quickly as everyone else. Like hackers, they’re out there seeking to use our own tools against us. For the sake of our own safety and the continued progress of future generations, we will all need to grow up faster than our machines and algorithms evolve. Even if the price of such safety means harnessing the power of those same algorithms to watch and report improper or dangerous patterns.