When someone makes a rape complaint, they’re legally meant to be kept anonymous unless they choose not to be. However, in prominent trials especially, victims can often be illegally named online, further preventing people from coming forward. Now, it’s been reported that Google is helping users find the names of rape victims, by suggested them with the ‘related search’ and ‘autocomplete’ function.
According to a The Times investigation, in an alleged case of rape, when you type a defendant’s name plus a common search term Google will bring up the victim’s name under autocomplete. Further, entering the defendant’s name and a simple term produces a woman’s name and home town under related searches. Equally, entering a victim’s name from a sexual abuse case brings up the abuser’s name as a related search.
Where victims have been granted anonymity by law, their name will still appear in related search. The invasion of privacy has been dubbed ‘a case of unintended consequences’ by Alan Woodward, a computing professor at the University of Surrey, who said. ‘Convenience can sometimes be the enemy of security and privacy.’
Unintended or not, Google is now under intense pressure to change their algorithm to better protect victims of sexual misconduct. The current system is only able to automatically bring up a victim’s name thanks to previous logging of popular searches for information about victims in prominent cases, even those have been named illegally on social media.
When a name is leaked, even if the post is later removed, Google still records that many people searched for the name. In keeping with their functions that aim to predict ‘the query you were likely to continue entering’ out of a matter of convenience, they’re essentially revealing anonymous people illegally.
As a result of the Times investigation, there have been calls for Google to change its algorithm, with Maria Miller, chairwoman of the Commons women and equalities committee, saying ‘Google has to operate within the law of the UK . . . if that means they have to change how their search engine operates, then so be it.’
Warning that the fault will inhibit other victims from bravely coming forward, Fay Maxted, chief executive of the Survivors Trust, told the publication that it was ‘beyond shocking that Google is facilitating access to the names of victims.’
Google has since responded, with a spokesperson saying:
‘We don’t allow these kinds of autocomplete predictions or related searches that violate laws or our own policies and we have removed the examples we’ve been made aware of in this case. We recently expanded our removals policy to cover predictions which disparage victims of violence and atrocities, and we encourage people to send us feedback about any sensitive or bad predictions.'