Daniel S. Griffin


What are search results? What are the human rights obligations of search engines?

Search engines no longer merely shape public understanding and access to the content of the World Wide Web: they shape public understanding of the world. . . .


Deirdre K. Mulligan, and Griffin, Daniel S.. “Rescripting Search to Respect the Right to Truth”. 2 GEO. L. TECH. REV. 557 (2018). [direct PDF link]



Search engines no longer merely shape public understanding and access to the content of the World Wide Web: they shape public understanding of the world. Search engine results produced by secret, corporate-curated “search scripts” of algorithmic and human activity influence societies’ understanding of history, and current events. Society’s growing reliance on online platforms for information about current and historical events raises the stakes of search engines’ content moderation practices for information providers and seekers and society. Public controversies over the results returned by search engines to politically and morally charged queries evidence the growing importance, and politics, of corporations’ content moderation activities.

Despite public concern with the political and moral impact of search engine results, search engine providers have resisted requests to alter their content moderation practices, responding instead with explanations, directions, and assistance that place responsibility for altering search results on information providers and seekers.

This essay explores a public controversy around the results Google’s search engine returned to the query “did the holocaust happen” in order to understand how different imaginaries of the script of search contribute to the production of problematic results and shape perceptions of how to allocate responsibility for fixing it.


introductory Twitter thread

MY FIRST PAPER: "Rescripting Search to Respect the Right to Truth" in @GLTReview w/ Deirdre Mulligan.
We build on @carolecadwalla's reporting on "did the hol" search results to re-consider search & 'results-of-search' to find a space to act & bear witness: https://t.co/Kii4CybsHn

— Daniel Griffin (@danielsgriffin) July 24, 2018


"Rescripting Search to Respect the Right to Truth" by Deirdre Mulligan & @danielsgriffin makes the brilliant case for how the Google cannot hold onto its obsession with neutrality given how people see search and how search is being manipulated. MUST READ:https://t.co/pOCMH5UXAQ

— danah boyd (@zephoria) September 24, 2018

If you are a GOOG engineer or attorney working on Search, Trust & Safety, or Research & ML, you need to be reading this right the fuck now. https://t.co/9gaGIbJFgN

— мара-яга (@marasawr) July 23, 2018

personal references:

w/in a thread on “search voids”:

But the results-of-search (the results of the entire query-to-conception experience of conducting a search *and* interpreting the search results) are distinct from the search results as displayed on the screen.¹
1: Mulligan & Griffin, forthcoming 2018🤞

— Daniel Griffin (@danielsgriffin) July 10, 2018

in response to a question about platform responsibility re misinformation and real-world harm:

² see Mulligan & Griffin forthcoming 🤞 on the applicability of the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights and questions about platform responsibilities to respect (and remedy) "Right to the truth"

— Daniel Griffin (@danielsgriffin) July 18, 2018

w/in a thread on the “search sublime”:

And here, Mulligan and Griffin's "Rescripting Search to Respect the Right to Truth" (2018), on the important and under-appreciated role of search formulation: https://t.co/PFuRjnJnoy pic.twitter.com/XDJ1f8iO6B

— Daniel Griffin (@danielsgriffin) October 3, 2018

describing the gap between search results & “results-of-search”:

1. "Rescripting Search to Respect the Right to Truth":
"search results, the listing of and linking to sites on a search engines results page, are distinct from the results-of-search, what searchers experience Google as communicating about those sites."https://t.co/C0ksNAXmpE

— Daniel Griffin (@danielsgriffin) September 6, 2019

see also

application 1

Mulligan, Deirdre K. and Griffin, Daniel S., “Google goes to China, will it tell the truth about Tiananmen Square?”, The Guardian, 21 August 2018.

This opinion piece develops from the Rescripting paper:

Google has no obligation to search for truth, but it does have the responsibility to faithfully surface the literal fact of a human rights atrocity, such as the Holocaust and the massacre at Tiananmen Square. To do so, search engines need to create a new algorithmic script. Call it a “bearing witness” script.

A bearing witness script is wholly consistent with the engineers’ commitments and capability. Relying on factual accounts of human rights atrocities produced by expert public bodies is well aligned with democratic values and avoids the slipperiness of in-house determinations.

application 2

a thread on Google’s human rights obligations re reproductive justice:

*right to an abortion & Google*
Again re Google failing to respect human rights & seemingly failing to "prevent or mitigate adverse human rights impacts that are directly linked to their operations, products or services by their business relationships"[1]:https://t.co/ucAyUfaVtj

— Daniel Griffin (@danielsgriffin) September 7, 2019


Mulligan presented an early draft at Symposium: The Governance & Regulation of Information Platforms put on by Georgetown Law’s Institute for Technology Law & Policy and The Georgetown Law Technology Review (video from 23 February, 2018).

Deirdre Mulligan: a search engine isn't a mirror of all human information online, it's a diffraction #PlatformLaw

— Lindsey Barrett (@LAM_Barrett) February 23, 2018

We presented to the UC Berkeley School of Information’s Information Access Seminar, organized by Dr. Michael Buckland, and received valuable feedback from the attending experts on information search & retrieval— no recording (20 April, 2018).

"Join us at 3:10pm today for Reasons and Rights to be Brave: Rescripting Search to Respect the Right to Truth, with Professor Deirdre Mulligan & PhD student @danielsgriffin: https://t.co/dbz7I7vLxq#infoaccess #Googlesearch" pic.twitter.com/YP0FiASjTP

— Berkeley School of Information (@BerkeleyISchool) April 20, 2018

I presented on the paper in Professor Mulligan’s 2018 Technology and Delegation Lab (20 September, 2018).

Early research

An early version of this research was presented in December 2017 at All Things in Moderation: The People, Practices and Politics of Online Content Review – Human and Machine—a two-day conference put on by UCLA’s Department of Information Studies.

Thread from Yoehan Oh:

"Our [Google] search results are a reflection of the content across the web." Let's problematize *search results* as various versions by not just search engines but also by individual search users @danielsgriffin #ATM2017 pic.twitter.com/6rDuC9OABw

— Yoehan Oh (@yoehanee) December 8, 2017


Haider, Jutta and Olof Sundin. Invisible Search and Online Search Engines: The Ubiquity of Search in Everyday Life. Routledge, 2019.

Partial citing excerpts:

Furthermore, being searchable is today not only often seen as a feature of information, but information is also moulded to fit the shape provided by the tools used for searching for it, and, more often than not, this is a web search engine (Gillespie 2017; Haider 2014; Kallinikos et al. 2010). Inversely, this also means that information that is not produced in conformity with the rules laid down by dominant search engines gets buried and is made less visible (Mulligan & Griffin 2018, pp. 569–570). Ultimately this – we can call it search-ification – of everyday life relates to the ways in which an increasingly invisible information infrastructure is entangled across culture and its practices and to what means we have at our disposal for understanding and making sense of these entanglements (see also Sundin et al. 2017). (p. 2)

The image of breakdown is not one that elicits a malfunctioning search engine, but one that prompts an interruption of the perception of the search engines as valueless and neutral. The infrastructure stops working frictionless (for us), and we notice not only the infrastructure in question, but how deeply mixed up we are in its functioning. “Google acts in the gap between the user’s query and the content”, write Deirdre Mulligan and Daniel Griffin (2018, p. 569). An occasion of this gap literally materialises, it could be argued, in the shape of the unassuming box into which a query is entered. The search box provides a crack through which we can catch a glimpse of the search engine’s inner workings. (p. 64)

If we, as Hjørland (2010) suggests, regard topical or subject relevance as also bringing in a “social paradigm”, there are interesting examples of how Google tries to consider the interest of society at large. These actions seem to follow a pattern, of public objection followed by corporate resistance, as Mulligan and Griffin (2018, p. 558) point out, in relation to human rights atrocities and specifically the Holocaust. Different ideas of what search engines are and do run into each other. The public perception of search engines as in addition to providing relevant information also acting as “stewards of authoritative historical truth” collides with a commitment on the part of search engine provider to an “engineering logics which tether search engine performance to observational measures of user satisfaction, coupled with limited recognition of the role search engines play in constructing the need being satisfied”, as Mulligan and Griffin (ibid.) note. (pp. 70-71)

If search engines structure the order of knowledge, and we claim that they do, then we need to understand how the information they provide is given meaning, in practices and in an epistemic sense. This becomes acutely obvious in areas, which have a history of violence and oppression, as for instance Deirdre Mulligan and Daniel Griffin (2018) discuss in relation to the search query “did the holocaust happen” or as Safiya Noble’s (2018) account of how racism is built into the very fabric of search engines, demonstrates at length. (pp. 93-94)