In the wee morning hours of Sunday, September 7, 2008, a reader on the website of the South Florida Sun-Sentinel browsed an old article on the 2002 bankruptcy of United Airlines. With hardly any other traffic on the site, that single hit moved the article into the "Popular Stories" list of the paper's business section. Soon after, Google News scanned the site and saw the article, but since it didn't find a 2002 dateline, it interpreted the article as new and added it to its index. Google News users began reading the story within minutes, and by Monday morning the "news" had been picked up by Bloomberg, a top news service for traders. When investors falsely believed the article referred to a new bankruptcy, stock for the airline fell by 70 percent in fifteen minutes, dropping the value of United Airlines by a billion dollars before NASDAQ froze trading.

The stock eventually regained most of its value, but legal action may result from the mix-up, and both Google and the news organizations involved are pointing fingers in the other direction. Google claims that human readers and its program Googlebot alike had no way to discern the date of the story, while a spokesman for the Sun-Sentinel argues that details from the story make clear that it refers to events from 2002--indicating that nobody who passed along the story actually took the trouble to read it.

Dear any company who has gone bankrupt in the past decade,

Please deposit $1,000,000 in my account or I will begin reading online articles about your bankruptcy on the websites of small town newspapers.

Very sincerely yours,

Somebody who is not Papa-Lu

More seriously, I'm all for the Google overlords -- who have algorithmatized news and even, to an extent, culture -- taking one in the arse, so I hope they have to pay big for this. My feelings about Bloomberg are ambivalent, but as a rule, companies ought to be held accountable for their algorithms.

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This page contains a single entry by Papa-Lu published on November 21, 2008 1:11 PM.

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