Search Neutrality

Google’s recent decision to integrate its social services into its search product has led to (another) round of outrage. There’s some speculation that the FTC and European Commissioners could launch anti-trust investigations, on grounds that Google is leveraging their search monopoly to unfairly muscle into other markets. Many of the popular tech news and gadget blogs are in an uproar (perhaps knowing it will lead to page views), with Gizmodo proclaiming that Google’s recent action “wiped out all those years of loyalty and goodwill it had built up” because while the new Google search service is

…ostensibly meant to deliver more personalized results . .. it pulls those personalized results largely from Google services—Google+, Picasa, YouTube. Search for a restaurant, and instead of its Yelp page, the top result might be someone you know discussing it on Google Plus. Over at SearchEngineland, Danny Sullivan has compiled a series of damning examples of the ways Google’s new interface promotes Plus over relevancy. Long story short: It’s a huge step backwards.

I actually use Bing a lot – it’s the default (and sole option) for native search on my phone – and I hate it. HATE IT. It’s really an incompetent search tool at this point. Google, even after integrating social results, works far, far better. Nevertheless, I get the complaints surrounding the anti-trust issues and even agree with them, to a point.

What is that point, you might ask? Well, there has been a long-standing discussion of whether we need ‘search neutrality’ along the lines of ‘network neutrality’, on the basis that people increasingly find sites via search rather than directly plugging in URLs. Thus, Google’s new approach could be seen as constituting a violation of so-called ‘search neutrality’. So, where does the question or issue arise? It’s when we ask this: do search algorithms, or sets of search algorithms, function as networks do – are they ‘dumb’ algorithms meant to get us and data from point A to point B – or do they constitute a form of creative expression, of speech? If you see the algorithms as speech then the notion of ‘speech neutrality’ seems awkward: such neutrality would insist that individuals/corporations moderate their algorithmically-derived ‘speech’ once they reach a certain size.

Whether there are anti-trust violations from Google’s integration of their social services into search will remain to be seen. The more pressing question, however, is whether we see algorithms along the lines of speech or raw data transmission from A to B. I suspect that this question will be addressed or discussed in anti-trust cases and that is where the real action will likely take place.

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