Google has sometimes gotten in trouble for the phrases that automatically appear when you’re trying to type in a new search. Even if some of them make for amusing celebrity interviews, others have sometimes steered users toward problematic concepts and fake news in addition to harmless movie and video game spoilers. The suggestions are based on what other people are searching for, after all.
But in the buildup to the 2020 US presidential election, Google is changing its autocomplete policies to theoretically weed out one particular category of suggestion: “Election related predictions” that could be interpreted as favoring a particular candidate or political party.
The new policy is extremely short, so I’ll just give you the whole thing right here:
Elections related predictions
We don’t allow predictions that could be interpreted as a position for or against any candidate or political party, nor which could be interpreted as claims about the participation in or integrity of the electoral process.
Mind you, Google already claimed in 2016 that “autocomplete does not favor any candidate or cause,” back when it was accused of hiding negative autocomplete results about Hillary Clinton. It sounds like this will be a bit different, though: instead of making sure that searches for political candidates and parties aren’t biased in any way, Google will simply be removing search suggestions that could favor either party or candidate.
Truth is not a defense
The company offered a few examples in a blog post today, and they seem heavy-handed in how “balanced” they’re trying to be: Google will apparently remove both the phrases “You can vote by phone” and “You can’t vote by phone,” even though one of those things is true and the other is a lie.
It’s also not clear how Google plans to enforce this adequately. The company’s agreed to remove predictions that could be misinterpreted as favoring a candidate, but it doesn’t say that it’ll be automatically or proactively making sure it never happens to begin with. It might be that people will need to report bad predictions to get them removed.