Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Amanda Todd disappears from Google 'people' results

Following the tragic suicide of Amanda Todd and the subsequent media coverage and the flood of online commentary, Todd's photo, along with those of two other victims of bullying who had taken their own lives, began to appear in Google search results for "bullying". (Justin Trudeau appears in a similar "people box" when searching on his name.)

Justsin Trudeau in Google "People Box"
"People Box" for Justin Trudeau
A 2008 study noted that the Internet is increasingly a source of information, especially for people confronting embarassing issues.  It also  notes that media can be very influential on those contemplating suicide, influencing modes and mannars of suicide attempts.  Many media, for this reason, do not report on cases of suicide.  (The Globe and Mail explains a bit about the Globe's coverage of Amanda Todd's death here.) The 2008 study also notes that people searching about suicide often do not go beyond the first page of search results. 

For these reasons, I was worried when I saw that a search on "bullying" returned not only some very helpful sites, including (which, by the way, could use some funding), but also three "people boxes" featuring three people who had taken their own lives as a result of bullying.  The first of the three boxes featured Amanda Todd.  I wondered how this search result, in response to a search on bullying, might affect a young person who was experiencing bullying and who was seeking help online.  How would it feel to see three these three tragic cases featured?  There are a variety of possible reactons and reasons for searching on the word "bullying", but it worried me in any case.

I contacted google about this by email, and I see that the "people box" no longer appears today on a search for "bullying".  I think this is a responsible and sensitive response by Google (if indeed it is a response rather than some kind of glitch).  I hope that it may increase the likelihood that people searching for help on bullying will click on the links for sites aimed at assisting those experiencing bullying.

This case, and the 2008 study, raise difficult questions about the management and regulation of search results.  How should Internet freedom, the freedom of search engines, and freedom of expression, be balanced with the need to protect people from bullying and from the measurable and sometimes negative effects of media and web sites dealing with suicide?