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[ NNSquad ] Google, Governments, and the Control of Search Results

           Google, Governments, and the Control of Search Results


A pair of Google-commissioned papers, one released just today, have
triggered considerable controversy relating to ongoing antitrust
investigations of Google by various regulators, including the U.S.
Federal Trade Commission (FTC) and the European Commission.

The first of these reports explores issues of First Amendment
protections as applied to search results ( http://j.mp/IOoBNd [Volokh] ),
the latter examines various proposed "remedies" for the supposed
"search bias" of which Google has been accused by some parties
( http://j.mp/KGiSMX [Lauren's Blog] ).

These are both relatively long, rather legalistically focused
documents, and there have been complaints regarding their having been
commissioned by Google itself.

Those complaints seem specious.  The facts described by these reports
are public record, open for everyone to see.  The analysis presented
in both will either stand or fall based on their own content,
irrespective of who paid for their creation.

Perhaps of more concern is the fact that most of us aren't lawyers,
and the majority of observers probably will not have the patience to
dig through those detailed documents in their entirety.

So let's see if we can cut to the chase.

Why does Google exist?  Or more to the point, if you use Google
services -- and you probably do -- why do you do so?  What are you
(not in terms of topics, but in terms of your experience as a user)
looking for when you use Google Search?

I believe it's appropriate to focus on Google Search here, rather than
the range of other Google services.  While Search is but one aspect of
an increasingly interrelated palette of Google-provided services,
Search tends to be the center of attention both for users and critics
of Google.

It's popular in some quarters (particularly among Google's various
adversaries), to refer to Google as a "monopoly," but this is
demonstrably a false characterization by any normal definition of the

In fact, just a few days ago, a "Slate" author noted how trivially
easy it was to switch from Google Search to Microsoft's Bing, and that
he found the search results from Bing to generally be quite similar to
those he obtained from Google ( http://j.mp/JhDGe4 [Slate] ).

So this brings us to the Search Results themselves.

Google's mission statement is well known: "To organize the world's
information and make it universally accessible and useful."

Yet have you ever really stopped to consider what "useful" actually
means on the enormous and rapidly expanding Web?

There are many sources of "information" on the Internet.

If you simply want to look up the names and address of local
merchants, you can use various "white pages" sites or other
directories.  If you're more interested in the additional data that
paid advertising brings to your decision-making process, there are
"yellow pages" sites, and a range of other directory sites for that
purpose as well.

But when you go to a general purpose search engine, like Bing, or
Google, or one of the many others, you're either explicitly or
implicitly almost always looking for opinions or answers.

*Opinions* -- opinions in terms of the search engine's recommendations
about which sites will most usefully meet the criteria of your search,
and the key word here is very much *usefully*.  For when looking at
organic (natural, non-ad) search results listings, you're almost
always actually seeking an appraisal, an opinion, not a simple
directory listing per se.

That's what Google and Bing (to name just two) try to accomplish.
They attempt to provide useful opinions about which sites on the Net
will be most useful to answer your query, or when your query is such
that a direct answer can be provided, to offer that result directly
for your convenience, as well as a list of recommended sites for
relevant additional perusal.

This is the very essence of providing the best user experience.  This
is the goal, what these sites are actually all about.

And succeeding at this complex task, by definition, involves value
judgments -- opinions.  In this case, opinions and judgments made by
complex algorithms, constantly being tweaked to make sense of the
essentially infinite range of possible combinations and Internet
destinations, not to mention accomplishing the enormous task of
weeding out spam, phishing sites, and sites trying to unfairly "game"
the system through various forms of subterfuge.

Understanding these efforts by search engines -- not only by Google --
to provide genuinely *useful* search results is important toward
recognizing why demands for nebulous and dangerous concepts such as
"search neutrality" make no sense, and would be utterly disastrous to

Because "search neutrality" would literally represent -- one way or
another -- the government dictating the opinions of search engines,
micromanaging search results, and inevitably morphing search engines
from providers of useful answers and recommendations, into "fend for
yourself" directories and listing services.

In fact, the concept of compulsory "neutrality" is effectively
contradictory to the candid presentation of opinions.  Honest opinions
are almost never neutral.  It's like the old Soviet Union, where you
were free to publicly and impotently espouse any opinions you wished,
so long as they were identical to the formal party line.

Trying to enforce "neutrality" in search results means that
algorithmically evolved judgments to usefully order sites for the best
query results become forbidden -- resulting in a chaos of lost
confidence at the hands of government associated "search purity"

To make information *useful*.  That's the goal of Google, and Bing,
and the many other sites that index the Internet in various ways.
There are many choices, many options, many opinions, innumerable
points of view.

Concepts such as "search neutrality" would be a death knell to
genuinely useful, reliable, and trustworthy search results, and
provide the government with an unprecedented ability to control the
presentation of Internet information as it sees fit, now and into the

Personally, I very much prefer to have search results decisions in the
hands of Google, and Bing, and the other organizations whose agenda is
providing maximally *useful* information for the global community of
Internet users.

Enforced "search neutrality" could easily mean the end of search as we
know it, and the beginning of a broad, encompassing,
government-mandated Internet information control dominion.

That's my opinion, anyway.

Lauren Weinstein (lauren@vortex.com): http://www.vortex.com/lauren 
Co-Founder: People For Internet Responsibility: http://www.pfir.org 
 - Data Wisdom Explorers League: http://www.dwel.org
 - Network Neutrality Squad: http://www.nnsquad.org 
 - Global Coalition for Transparent Internet Performance: http://www.gctip.org
 - PRIVACY Forum: http://www.vortex.com 
Member: ACM Committee on Computers and Public Policy
Lauren's Blog: http://lauren.vortex.com
Google+: http://vortex.com/g+lauren / Twitter: http://vortex.com/t-lauren 
Tel: +1 (818) 225-2800 / Skype: vortex.com
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