23 March 2006

Morals of Cyberspace

Here's an interesting reference to a Ney York Times article from John Battelle's blog John Battelle's Searchblog: Abortion, Adoption, Amazon.

The full article is here

Amazon Says Technology, Not Ideology, Skewed Results
Published: March 20, 2006
Amazon.com last week modified its search engine after an abortion rights organization complained that search results appeared skewed toward anti-abortion books.
Until a few days ago, a search of Amazon's catalog of books using the word "abortion" turned up pages with the question, "Did you mean adoption?" at the top, followed by a list of books related to abortion.
Amazon removed that question from the search results page after it received a complaint from a member of the Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice, a national organization based in Washington.
"I thought it was offensive," said the Rev. James Lewis, a retired Episcopalian minister in Charleston, W.Va. "It represented an editorial position on their part."
Patty Smith, an Amazon spokeswoman, said there was no intent by the company to offer biased search results. She said the question "Did you mean adoption?" was an automated response based on past customer behavior combined with the site's spelling correction technology.
She said Amazon's software suggested adoption-related sources because "abortion" and "adoption" have similar spellings, and because many past customers who have searched for "abortion" have also searched for "adoption."
Ms. Smith said the "Did you mean adoption?" prompt had been disabled. (It is not known how often searches on the site turn up any kind of "Did you mean..." prompt.)
Customers, however, are still offered "adoption" as a possibility in the Related Searches line at the top of an "abortion" search results page. But the reverse is not true.
Ms. Smith said that was because many customers who searched for abortion also searched for adoption, but customers who searched for "adoption" did not typically search for topics related to abortion.
Still, the Rev. Jeff Briere, a minister with the Unitarian Universalist Church in Chattanooga, Tenn., and a member of the abortion rights coalition, said he was worried about an anti-abortion slant in the books Amazon recommended and in the "pro-life" and "adoption" related topic links.
"The search engine results I am presented with, their suggestions, seem to be pro-life in orientation," Mr. Briere said. He also said he objected to a Yellow Pages advertisement for an anti-abortion organization in his city that appeared next to the search results, apparently linked by his address.
Web software that tracks customers' purchases and searches makes it possible for online stores to recommend items tailored to a specific shopper's interests. Getting those personalized recommendations right can mean significantly higher sales.
But getting it wrong can cause problems, and Amazon is not the first company to find that automated online recommendations carry risks.
In January, Walmart.com issued a public apology and took down its entire cross-selling recommendation system when Web customers who looked at a boxed set of movies that included "Martin Luther King: I Have a Dream" and "Unforgivable Blackness: The Rise and Fall of Jack Johnson" were told they might also appreciate a "Planet of the Apes" DVD collection, as well as "Ace Ventura: Pet Detective" and other irrelevant titles.
Posted by mofoghlu at March 23, 2006 12:15 PM
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