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Debunked: Ridiculous claims of 'pro-life' bias in Siri (Update: Apple responds)

Update: The New York Times has a response. Natalie Kerris, a spokeswoman for Apple, told them: "These are not intentional omissions meant to offend anyone. It simply means that as we bring Siri from beta to a final product, we find places where we can do better, and we will in the coming weeks."

Think Progress, Slate, and a whole lot of other outlets are piling it on thick and claiming that Siri's search parameters have a "pro-life" bias because the service has difficulty locating abortion clinics or birth control services in many areas. "Siri's unhelpful and sometimes misleading answers to pressing health questions stand in stark contrast to her prompt and accurate responses to inquiries about nearby escort services," says Think Progress, while Slate goes even farther off the deep end and says, "many around the Web [are] wondering if Siri is pro-life and whether Apple is attempting to impose its morals upon the rest of us."

This is a textbook example of sensationalistic media making something from absolutely nothing. If Siri's search parameters function the same way as other services (and I'm almost certain they do), it's likely that in addition to the business name itself, a business will have a cluster of tagged metadata associated with it. Siri's association with Yelp in the U.S. makes this sort of tagging extremely easy for restaurants and other retail services -- searching for something as simple as "hamburgers" or "Target" will return dozens of results in major cities.

For other services -- birth control and abortion clinics being two examples -- Siri apparently relies on a much less extensive database than Yelp, with far less comprehensive tagging. All that Think Progress and Slate's "research" shows is that Apple isn't relying upon Google's database for such searches, either; a Google Maps search for "abortion clinic in Washington, D.C." turns up 10 results in the Maps app, while Siri returns only two (apparently invalid) results.

If you're the type to leap to your keyboard and pound out a linkbaiting headline before warming up your logic circuits first, then sure, this might look like Apple once again being the "evil Big Brother" that the media's been trying to paint it as for years, this time passive-aggressively shoving a pro-life stance on people searching for women's health services.

If you instead insert a couple minutes of logical thought between your fingers and the keyboard, it looks more like Apple's tagging services for Siri are incomplete when it has to source its searches from sources other than Yelp -- which is exactly what you'd expect from a BETA service that's been in widespread public use for less than two months as of this writing.

At any rate, the central premise of this handwringing claim that Siri is "pro-life" is easy enough to debunk. Searches for "abortion clinic" or "birth control clinic" return few if any results in most areas, but I found results for "abortion clinic" in Denver, Milwaukee, New York City, and several other cities across the US.

A Siri search for "Planned Parenthood" almost always returns results no matter where you search in the States -- because that search is powered by Yelp rather than whatever comparatively limited database Siri is using for more specific searches like "abortion clinic" or "birth control." If Siri is really supposed to be "pro-life" and "imposing morals" on its users, then searches for the politically charged Planned Parenthood clinics would also turn up no results, wouldn't they?

Why searches for "abortion clinic" or "birth control" aren't also Yelp-powered is easy enough to discern; searching for "abortion clinic" in Washington, D.C. on yelp.com returns an array of ridiculous results such as "New York New York Salon" (the top result), McDonald's (not kidding), Ebenezers Coffeehouse, and Georgetown University Law Center. That's the downside of a crowdsourced search service.

"Why not just source results from Google Maps?" you might ask. That's easy enough to answer: it's probably because Siri is designed to lessen Apple's dependence on its biggest competitor for search services. Does that do users any sort of disservice, especially to the extent that Think Progress and Slate claim? Not particularly, since either the Google-powered Maps app or a Google search within Safari are at most one or two taps away.

Going by the hilariously flawed logic in Think Progress and Slate's reporting, I could just as easily say that Apple has a jingoistic pro-American bias because Siri's business and navigational searches only work in the U.S. "OH NOES, Siri can't find places in New Zealand, that must mean Apple hates Kiwis! Quickly Robin, to the Boycottmobile!"

About an hour or so after I finished writing the above diatribe against the massive overreaction to this non-event, Apple confirmed to the New York Times that Siri's responses to queries for abortion clinics were a glitch. "These are not intentional omissions meant to offend anyone," an Apple spokesperson confirmed to the Times. "It simply means that as we bring Siri from beta to a final product, we find places where we can do better, and we will in the coming weeks."

Critical thinking, ladies and gentlemen. It's not difficult.

Note: Due to the inevitable storm in a teacup that results anytime anyone mentions the A-word, comments on this post will be heavily moderated. We will not approve comments from either side of the endless debate.



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Update: The New York Times has a response. Natalie Kerris, a spokeswoman for Apple, told them: "These are not intentional omissions...