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Principles of Search Neutrality

I just want to respond to Rob’s and Greg’s concerns about Adam Raff’s “search neutrality” editorial in the NYT today. On the basis of the many articles I’ve written on search (as well as discussions with individuals who have problems similar to Raff’s), I found the editorial both informative and compelling. Principles of search neutrality are bound to be more complex than the network nondiscrimination rules we’re all familiar with. But we must realize (as forward-thinking cyberlaw activists now do) that “bottlenecks” at any layer of the internet–physical, social, applications, or content–can be problematic.

If you want to see a specification of what search neutrality might look like, just look at page 27 of this article. Or the series of comparisons in the chart on this page. Or take a look at Dawn Nunziato’s discussion of Google News in her book, Virtual Freedom. Siva Vaidhyanathan also has interesting insights. Thankfully, I’m no longer a voice crying in the wilderness on this issue. As Viva Moffat shows, there is a wide range of opinion on regulating search.

Admittedly, Raff likely can’t prove conclusively that Google’s prioritization practices hurt any particular company, because they are so secretive. But that opacity is itself concerning.

Public interest groups have made some inroads in holding carriers accountable, but even they appear reluctant to take the next step to recognize the parallel power of a dominant search engine like Google. They will soon have no choice but to confront this dominance, given that the obstacles to holding Google accountable—trade secret protection for its ordering algorithms—will also interfere with network neutrality regulation. Like search engines, carriers face an information overload problem, as spam, viruses, and high-demand applications threaten to overwhelm their networks. They are likely to make key network management practices as confidential as search engine rankings, and trade secret protection has already been deployed in other technological settings to block critical review of questionable corporate behavior.

Dominant search engines and carriers are the critical infrastructure for contemporary culture and politics. As these dominant intermediaries have gained more information about their users, they have shrouded their own business practices in secrecy. Internet policy needs to address the resulting asymmetry of knowledge and power. I’m glad to see people like Raff bringing these concerns to a public forum.

PS: More discussion at TPM, Marketing Pilgrim, and Business Edge.