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[ NNSquad ] A Perfect Storm: How Government Will Dictate Your Search Results

      A Perfect Storm: How Government Will Dictate Your Search Results


The vast scope of the Internet makes search engines, such as Google,
Bing, and others, crucial aspects of our ability to locate and access
information on the Net.  After all, if we can't find particular
information, if perhaps we don't even know that it exists, it for all
practical purposes may not realistically exist for most of us.

To be genuinely useful, most natural (that is organic, non-paid
placement) search results from general-purpose search engines must
represent a form of opinions, in this case opinions driven by
algorithms that are created, refined, and tuned by human beings.

Any time information is ranked by a search engine, rather than (for
instance) simply being listed alphabetically as in a telephone
directory, algorithmic value judgments are being applied, and since by
definition not everyone will achieve the top rankings, there will
almost always be some parties disappointed in the ranking outcomes.

The never-ending quest for search quality, which we can reasonably
define as the effort to return the most relevant and useful search
results for any given query by any given user, is immensely complex,
and what's more, involves counteracting actively hostile players who
continually attempt to "game" the system through various "black hat"
SEO (Search Engine Optimization) techniques and related ploys.

Bottom line: This is complicated stuff.

But for all of the complexity, and even given the fact that most of
the hard work and technological "magic" of search ranking occurs
behind the scenes for users, I believe it's fair to say that most
people feel that the search results they get from Bing, or Google, or
most other search engines, are of quite high quality and objective in

This is only logical.  Any search engine, no matter how large, is
still only a click away from its competitors.  A search engine that
did not meet the expectations and needs of its users will find itself
abandoned in short order.  The users must come first.

Unfortunately, a perfect storm of forces is converging on the Internet
in ways that represent an enormous censorship risk to users' abilities
to obtain search results free from government interference.

In fact, we appear to be rapidly moving toward a possible future where
governments around the world will demand to micromanage the search
results for effectively all search engines, potentially creating an
information control regime of an oppressive nature never before seen.

And naturally, all of this will happen with governments arguing that
the crackdowns are all "for the good of the people."

There are multiple origins of these pressures for governments to
dictate search engine results.

The security - cybersecurity - political realm is increasingly a

Governments around the world are arguing that search results should be
censored to "hide" information that specific governments consider to
be dangerous, objectionable, blasphemous, embarrassing, or simply just
inconvenient. ["CISPA, Cybersecurity, and the Devil in the Dark" -
http://j.mp/HIO8ud (Lauren's Blog)]

A similar category includes firms and individuals who are unhappy with
information regarding them on various Web sites, and desire that
search engines remove/censor links that would allow people to easily
find those sites during searches.  Attempts to codify such desires
under the umbrella term "right to be forgotten" are especially
prevalent in Europe. ["The 'Right to Be Forgotten': A Threat We Dare
Not Forget" - http://j.mp/AatI0J (Lauren's Blog)]

Also currently focused in Europe, but also in other areas of the world
as well, including here in the U.S., are the calls for the nebulous
(and I would argue, logically specious) concept of "search neutrality" --
most often invoked now against Google, despite Google's statements
(and empirical evidence easily duplicated by most any Web surfer) that
Google's natural search results are kept as scrupulously fair as is
technologically possible across the enormous scope of the Web.
["'Search Neutrality' and Propaganda Deluxe" - http://j.mp/7Q5Wus
(Lauren's Blog)]

And the list goes on.

Taken individually, various of these arguments for search engine
censorship and associated government control over search results, may
appear to have ostensibly positive motives in some specific cases.

But even if we take that as a given for the sake of the argument, we
need to look beyond the individual cases to the combined impact that
embarking on a search engine censorship/government information control
regime would entail. Because the unavoidable outcome would appear to
be virtually total control of search engines by governments, and human
history suggests that information control is a power with which no
government can be trusted, however altruistic any given government may
appear to be at any particular moment in time.

A key reason for this relates to what I've in the past called "Woody
Allen's Einstein Argument."

In 1967's spy spoof "Casino Royale," Woody Allen's comedic evil
character has this verbal exchange with a captured character played by
Daliah Lavi:

Lavi:  You're crazy. You are absolutely crazy! 
Allen: They called Einstein crazy. 
Lavi:  That's not true. No one ever called Einstein crazy. 
Allen: Well, they would have if he carried on like this. 

In other words, it is always possible to postulate actions or intents
that are not in evidence.

Regardless of what a firm says about how they're ranking search
results, or protecting data, or ... whatever ... it is always possible
to suggest they're lying, or that yes, they're honest today but maybe
they'll be lying tomorrow!  Or maybe they're not evil this year but
will turn to the dark side within five years, or ...

Such arguments, of a sort that have become all too common now in our
perverse and polarized political environment, lead us away from
demonstrable reality, not toward it.

And if you refuse to trust these firms' pronouncements and intentions,
what is the alternative?  Do you really want to put the
micromanagement of search results and determining what information is
or is not available, into the hands of politicians?  Have we learned
nothing at all from history, about how even wonderful political
intentions can become adulterated over time?

The commercial search engines like Google and Bing have an obvious
self-interest in playing the game honestly.  Their users can click
away at any time.  This is a powerful incentive to stay on the
straight and narrow, even beyond basic ethical considerations.

Frankly, I have much more faith in Google, or Bing, or even Facebook
in these regards, than I would have for government edicts concerning
search engine results or other information control regimes.

Once a government, any government, gets its hands deeply into search
engine algorithms and search results, politicians' natural tendencies
to ever expand their reach will be irresistible.  They will go ever
deeper.  They will not willingly ever let go.  They will have dramatic
arguments about why their control is for the sake of the community,
but in the end they will crush the life out of information freedom

And don't feel too confident that courts will protect these freedoms.

Google -- correctly -- argues that search results are protected by the
U.S. First Amendment, but there are many reasons to suspect that
inflated claims of national security concerns, "protect the innocent
from the nasty Internet" arguments, and international
agreements/treaty obligations could still lead to pervasive government
control and censorship of search engine results -- not only just here
in the U.S., but around much of the globe.

Of course, the sad truth is that there are many persons who would very
much like to see the world of government-controlled search engines
come to pass as quickly and comprehensively as possible.

And if this does occur, in the future you may not even be able to find
again this very posting that you're reading at this very moment.

Thanks for reading it now -- while you still can.

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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