Google ‘identifies rape victims’
Google ‘identifies rape victims’
Tech giant accused of allowing users to bypass court anonymity orders
Google’s algorithm automatically brings up victims’ names because it has logged popular searches for information about victims
By Kaya Burgess May 22 2018, 12:01 am, The Times
Google is helping its users to uncover the identity of rape victims whose anonymity is protected by law, The Times has found.
Searches for attackers and alleged attackers in several prominent sexual assault cases automatically reveal the names of women that they have been convicted or accused of abusing.
Entering the name of a victim or complainant in the site’s search engine can also flag up the identity of their abuser or alleged abuser. The identity of vulnerable defendants granted anonymity can also be revealed.
Google uses automated “related search” and “autocomplete” functions to direct users to content associated with the terms that they enter online. The related search feature makes suggestions at the bottom of the web page based on what other users have been looking for. Autocomplete adds words into the search bar once the user has started typing to predict their query.
Google’s algorithm automatically brings up victims’ names because it has logged popular searches for information about victims in prominent cases, often after they were illegally named on social media.
The Times’s investigation has led to calls for Google to filter out such results. Maria Miller, chairwoman of the Commons women and equalities committee, said: “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.”
Jess Phillips, the Labour MP, said that the technology was turning victims into “click-bait”, and a rape charity warned that it would deter them from coming forward. Fay Maxted, chief executive of the Survivors Trust, said it was “beyond shocking that Google is facilitating access to the names of victims”. Police and the courts were urged to help Google by informing it of cases where a victim’s anonymity was at risk.
Complainants in sex offence cases have automatic lifelong anonymity, including if the accused is acquitted. Breaching this anonymity is a criminal offence, with fines of up to £5,000.
At least nine people have been convicted for posting names on social media. Although posts can be taken down, Google’s algorithm records that many people searched for the names.
Google states that autocomplete represents “our best predictions of the query you were likely to continue entering”, informed by popular searches.
The search engine’s policy states that “sexually explicit”, “hateful” and “violent” predictions are removed and it also removes terms “in response to valid legal requests”. It adds that when inappropriate results are reported it strives “quickly to remove them”.
The Times performed searches from several unlinked computers to ensure results were not influenced by search history. The names brought up have been verified and reported to Google for removal. The findings include:
• In a case of alleged rape, typing the defendant’s name plus a common search term brings up the alleged victim’s name under autocomplete.
• In another alleged rape, entering the defendant’s name and a simple term produces a woman’s name and home town under related searches.
• In a sexual abuse case, searching for the victim’s name brings up their abuser’s name as a related search.
• A simple search relating to a violent crime case brings up as a related search the name and hometown of the defendant, who was granted anonymity.
Alan Woodward, a computing professor at the University of Surrey, said: “Convenience can sometimes be the enemy of security and privacy. This is a case of unintended consequences.”
A Google spokeswoman said: “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.”
Anonymity is granted to a wide range of people in the justice system, including victims of sex crime, people under 18 facing criminal charges and those in family court cases (Frances Gibb writes).
However, these rules can be undermined if people can search for names and publish them. The problem was highlighted in the case of the footballer Ched Evans. When he was accused of rape, supporters named his alleged victim on social media.
Jurors discussing a trial on Facebook have been jailed, in one case in 2012 for six months. A year later a man received a suspended jail term for tweeting images purporting to identify a man given life-long anonymity.
Such cases deal with the problem after the event and the ease with which names can be found will fuel fears that more people may flout the rules.
Google and other platforms have generally not been prosecuted because they are not deemed to be “publishers”. On top of this, the Defamation Act provides that those who are not the author, editor or commercial publisher of a defamatory statement are not liable if they took care over the publication and did not know or believe that they caused or contributed to the defamatory statement.