Google refines autocomplete for election-related searches ahead of US contest


Google announced new search policies ahead of Election Day in the US.


Google on Thursday announced changes to features in its search engine when people look up information on elections or candidates, updates the tech giant made as Americans gear up to vote on Nov. 3. 

One change is to the company’s autocomplete feature, which tries to predict what people want to search for, while they’re still typing their queries. Now the feature won’t include autocomplete suggestions for donating to particular candidates or political parties if a user types something like “donate to.” Google is also banning autocomplete suggestions about election processes or requirements, whether they’re factual or not. That means search suggestions about, say, voting by phone won’t appear in the autocomplete search box. 

Google warns that as a result of the new policy, benign and legitimate autocomplete results may not appear, out of caution to make sure the company isn’t suggesting harmful material. Google emphasized that even though something doesn’t come up in autocomplete, people can still search on those terms as they normally would by manually typing out the queries. 

“We will remove predictions that could be interpreted or perceived as claims in support of one candidate or against one candidate, or claims or predictions about participation in an election,” David Graff, senior director of trust and safety policies at Google, said during a press briefing Thursday. 

Google also said it’s trying to make sure false information doesn’t make it into its search engine’s information panels, which sometimes appear when people search for public figures or places. Those panels are populated by several sources, including Wikipedia. But since Wikipedia entries can be edited by anyone, there’s a chance that misinformation, jokes and hoaxes could be included in Google’s panels and amplified for billions of people. Google said it’s working with Wikipedia and has developed technical systems to avoid those mistakes. The company also said it’s formed an “intelligence desk” to monitor information on Google during breaking news events like elections or natural disasters.

The announcements come as Silicon Valley companies try to prove they can avoid the pitfalls they encountered in 2016. That election was marred by interference from Russia, which exploited platforms from Google, Facebook and Twitter to try to influence the outcome of the contest. 

The changes also highlight Google’s desire to be seen as politically neutral when it comes to election activity. Google, along with Silicon Valley peers Facebook and Twitter, has been accused by Republicans of anticonservative bias, a claim trumpeted without evidence by President Donald Trump. Two years ago, the president claimed that Google’s search results were “rigged” to promote negative news stories on Trump. Google has repeatedly said its processes are unbiased.

The tweaks to Google’s search features underscore the vast influence the tech giant has over what information people see. That dominance has come with scrutiny from lawmakers and regulators.

The company has been accused of hurting competitors by prioritizing its own products, like shopping ads or local business listings, over the listings of rivals in its search results. Critics also complain that the tech giant takes content from publishers and other websites and uses that information in prepared answers directly in Google’s search engine, rather than simply providing a list of links that send users away to other sites. 

The US Department of Justice is reportedly looking into Google’s search business and is expected to file an antitrust lawsuit as early as this month. Google on Thursday said the search feature announcements aren’t related to its ongoing antitrust battles.

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