More about how search neutrality doesn’t exist

I appreciate Frank’s addition to the discussion here, started by Greg and based on Frank Raff’s NY Times Op-Ed. That said, I think we’re at least somewhat talking around each other, and the major reason is that the primary legal structures designed to handle the problems that Raff is really upset about — Google’s dominant position in the search engine market and its actions while holding that position — don’t work the way he would like them to. So he renames what it is he’s talking about in the hopes of getting around ineffectual, time-consuming and inefficient government controls (in the form of monopoly and antitrust/competition regulation) to try to wiggle his way into something that might be more efficient (making/keeping search engines “neutral” as part of the net neutrality debate).

In looking over (again) the resources Frank pointed to, I’m still not convinced that this is about neutrality. Raff’s outline of search neutrality at “searchengineneutrality.org” (yes, searchengineneutrality.org is not a non-profit site, it is a “project” of Raff’s foundem.co.uk enterprise) is not convincing. For the most part, his chart sets out Google’s position on “net neutrality” and then puts the words “search neutrality” in their place (sometimes reaching nonsensical results). For example (this is one row from the table available on Raff’s site):

Net Neutrality (in Google’s words)

Search Neutrality (in Our words)

Today, the neutrality of the Internet is at stake as the broadband carriers want Congress’s permission to determine what content gets to you first and fastest. Put simply, this would fundamentally alter the openness of the Internet. Today, the neutrality of the Internet is at stake as Google, the overwhelmingly dominant search engine, asserts full and undisclosed editorial control of what content you see and what you don’t. Put simply, this is fundamentally altering the openness of the Internet.

Notice the switch in rhetoric: Google complained in the net neutrality debate about broadband carriers wanting to decide how to prioritize data traffic. It raises this complaint without regard to the market position of the carrier because of the implications for the way the Internet functions. Raff turns the quote into a question of “editorial control” based on Google’s dominant position. These are very disparate objections, one relying on market dominance, the other not, one ostensibly relying on “editorial control” and one not.

But as I argued in my original post, search engines cannot be neutral because the nature of search engines is to discriminate. That is their job. So the idea that a particular search engine discriminates cannot be the entirety of the objection that anyone has as to how that search engine operates. If what that a particular search engine is doing is discriminating based on payments it receives or business partnerships it maintains, then that is a completely separate issue, not one that relates to neutrality, but one that relates to market practices and competition policy.

Note that in our initial posts, both Greg and I acknowledged the potential problems raised by Google’s dominant position and how it actually acts. These are concerns, but they are concerns within the context that a good search engine is one that discriminates, and does so very well. I do not seek a search engine that does not discriminate (or, is neutral).

This argument against “neutrality” does nothing to the current literature on problems in search engines and dangers in not watching closely how they are behaving (especially Google). In that context, calls for transparency, fairness, accountability, rights of reply, and responsibility in relation to search engine are important, but just as importantly they are all achievable. Search engines could function in a transparent fashion and still be search engines (ie, discriminate in how they present the results of user searches). Neutrality, at least as that term is currently understood and especially as it relates to the net neutrality debate, is not achievable for search engines, or at least not for what we now know as search engines.

My ultimate objection here turns out to be rhetorical/semantic: I think it’s confusing and unnecessary to try to insert the concept of neutrality into the discussion of search engine excesses and abuses (and less than helpful to do it in the way the Times and Raff did, in a too short Op-Ed written by someone who clearly has a personal, if never clearly articulated, axe to grind). I wish that instead Raff had simply and straightforwardly complained about the anti-competitive effects of Google’s actions so that we could be sure we are all talking about the same thing. I agree with Frank that Google is a “gate-keeper” and “bottleneck” and “intermediary”, but we won’t solve search engine related problems by trying to ask search engines to do something that would turn them into non-search engines.

3 thoughts on “More about how search neutrality doesn’t exist

  1. I agree with Rob here. We both agree that Google is a dominant intermediary and it has substantial market power that is cause for scrutiny and concern. Most people feel that way.

    But Google is regulated by law, just as any other e-commerce business is regulated. The question, I think, is what *new* regulation is appropriate to deal with the particular problems raised by search. While Raff’s Op-Ed, and it’s quasi-endorsement by the Times, suggests that many people are concerned about the power Google wields through search, I think Raff goes off the rails by proposing that “search neutrality” can somehow provide a simple solution to these questions. Like Rob, I think an appeal to search neutrality just confuses the issue.

    W/r/t better approaches, I agree with Frank that search engine opacity is troubling in that it creates a potential for the abuse of market power that may go undetected. I think Frank’s proposal for some sort of confidential governmental algorithmic review committee is interesting, though I’d want more details on how that process would occur. Without a clear notion of what sorts of harms the government would be concerned about, I’m not sure how they would exercise their oversight. E.g., to the extent the FTC has a claim concerning Google’s search algorithm, they can bring that claim in the absence of regulatory oversight.

    The right of reply idea is interesting too, but I have concerns about regulatory overreach in that context as well. Cass Sunstein suggested something similar in Republic.com about a right of reply on web pages, and I’ve never been convinced that he was on the right track there.

    It seems to me that the most strident critics of search placement are folks like Raff who feel like they’ve been penalized in the ecommerce market by Google. They’re generally complaining about market regulation. From a practical business perspective, the answer to this is the SEO game, not a lawsuit. SEO tries to keep on top of how money can be made by strategic exploitation of rankings. The skill and the aggressiveness of the some of the SEO players is part of the reason for Google’s current algorithmic opacity.

    So I’m actually very interested in what Frank, Siva, Dawn and other voices crying in the wilderness have to suggest about how to address Google’s centrality in the search market with new law. I just don’t think legally mandating “search neutrality” is a particularly promising avenue.

    (And to the extent we’re not *legally* mandating some definition of neutrality, it is notable that Google generally professes to be delivering search neutrality in its organic results.)

  2. This is basically a “What goes around, comes around” situation.

    There are some real issues under “Net Neutrality”. But they’ve been hopelessly muddied, especially for non-technical people, by a lobbying campaign that’s full of confusing and misleading rhetoric – a large amount of it generated by Google.

    Now there’s a backlash, with confusing and misleading rhetoric, against Google, though there’s real issues, hopelessly muddied, especially for non-technical people, etc.

    It’s all contributed to my cynicism about politics.

  3. Net neutrality is the idea that my connection from my home to a website or net service is not affected by my isp, some media company, or some telecom. I dont want a VOIP provider paying the ISP to block my VOIP provider. I dont want a media company blocking me being able to see a competing media companies site. There is positive discrimination and negative. The positive in this case is that the ISP will try to shape everyone’s traffic to balance the load and help everyones packets get back and forth. The negative is the dropping of bittorrent or voip traffic or of the traffic of a high-bandwith user.

    Seach engine neutrality, again, I see in both positive and negative terms. I want positive discrimination — ‘this is a non-red cube’ vs ‘this is a red cube’, discrimination based upon color if I asked for a red cube. But not negative discrimination: I will only show you results from website on $partner hosting service and not $competing hosting service.
    if someone looks at the traffic shaping rules and the search algorithms, they would hopefully see very obvious indications of negative discrimination if it was present.

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