December 4, 2011

Siri - An Anti-Abortion App?


Siri has generated heated debates among people because it refuses to show results pertaining to pregnancy, abortion, abortion clinics and contraceptives in most of the searches. What seems to have triggered this reaction is that Siri displays results on vastly diverse topics, including many not-so-polite ones, but leaves the users hanging in mid air when it comes to the politically charged topic of abortion.

According to ABC News, Siri provides ample information when asked about Planned Parenthood but says, "I'm really sorry about this, but I can't take any requests right now. Please try again in a little while" and “Sorry, [name], I can’t look for places in [location]. I don’t see any abortion clinics. Sorry about that”, when asked about a place for getting an abortion. Siri users have also said that even when Siri displays information pertaining to abortion clinics, the searches are very few and pertain to abortion clinics that are miles away from their homes.  According to Abortioneers Blog and Gizmodo, Siri sometimes suggests a pro-life Crisis Pregnancy Center, when asked about abortion clinics.

NARAL Pro-Choice President, Nancy Keenan, sent a letter to Apple registering the organization’s disappointment that “a tool like Siri is missing the mark when it comes to providing information about such personal health issues” and re-directing women to deceptive crisis pregnancy centers.

Founder and President of Stanton Healthcare, Brandi Swindell, went one step ahead and said that, “We applaud Apple iPhone’s 4S Siri and are thrilled that Siri does not list or refer to abortion clinics. Numerous lives will be saved as a direct result. Siri is setting the standard for all organizations — no one should ever refer anyone to get an abortion.” Such comments just add fuel to the fire in the case of such sensitive topics.

When New York Times asked Norman Winarsky, one of the founders of Siri, about the bias being reflected in Siri, he said that the third-party, Web services, that Siri taps to get answers about local businesses, is at the core of this problem. He said that, “My guess at what’s happening here is that Apple has made deals with Web services that provide local business information and Apple probably hasn’t paid much attention to all the results that come up.” 

Tech analyst, Rob Enderle, said that it is unlikely that Apple purposely took a pro-life stance, given that Steve Jobs was considered a liberal in this regard. He also said that, “I think more likely this was the act of an employee who was not authorized, or an issue with one of the back-end services, as this would be a somewhat unusual search request and might not have come up in testing.” However, many bloggers said that Apple tends to have a conservative approach towards sensitive topics, citing Apple’s Bikini Ban of 2010, though the Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Calendar App never fell under the radar of the ban.



Another blogger opined “Siri is a front end to internet search engines. It’ll return the results of those search engines however good or bad they may be. Now Apple can be blamed for side-stepping Google and using a search engine that returns poor results for these specific queries.” He also said as to how various results show up faster than others on Siri owing to better and extensive databases. He further said that, “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.”



Since, Siri is promoted as an easy way to get driving directions, send quick messages or find local shops, it is better to search for abortion clinics in Google Maps because this has an extensive database, which helps in finding virtually anything under the Sun and is just a few taps away. However, Siri’s major short-coming ought to be rectified by Apple because it is hurting the sentiments of people, especially women. If Apple does not attend to this problem now, it might just turn into a burning issue in the future.

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