Search, Spin, and Anti-Trust

September 4, 2010

Google has long been one of network neutrality’s most enthusiastic advocates, but it is fighting against growing calls for search neutrality—the proposal that the same principles of transparency and non-discrimination be extended beyond Internet providers to search engines. Neutrality concerns are particularly pressing in search, where Google’s 85% share of the global market places so much power in the hands of a single corporation.

Search neutrality poses an interesting dilemma for Google: how to argue that discriminatory market power is somehow dangerous in the hands of an Internet provider but harmless in the hands of an overwhelmingly dominant search engine? So far, Google’s response has been evasive. Because Google cannot argue against the actual principles of search neutrality—the same principles it has long advocated for networks—it has contrived an imaginary and fundamentally distorted version to argue against instead.

Google has tried to cast search neutrality as a call for search engines to expose the inner workings of their algorithms. But Foundem’s EU Complaint against Google, which was filed earlier this year and argues for the principles of search neutrality, went out of its way to make clear that it is “not seeking to require Google to publish details of its ranking algorithms”.

Moreover, search neutrality is not a call for Government-mandated, “standardised algorithms”. In October last year, Foundem defined search neutrality as the principle that search engine results should be comprehensive, impartial, and based solely on relevance. Clearly, no two search engines will produce the same search results; nor should they. But any genuine pursuit of the most relevant results must, by definition, preclude any form of arbitrary discrimination.

With the introduction in 2007 of what it calls “Universal Search”, however, Google began discriminating in favour of its own services, brazenly inserting them at or near the top of its search results for a vast and rapidly increasing number of queries. This strategy has transformed Google’s ostensibly neutral search results into a powerful marketing channel for Google’s own services.

The principles of search neutrality are both reasonable and straightforward to implement. Foundem’s EU Complaint, for example, proposes that a search engine should not be allowed to discriminate in favour of its own services; and that where it does insert its own services, these should be clearly differentiated from real search results just as sponsored links are. Foundem’s Complaint also addresses Google’s increasing use of arbitrary and discriminatory penalties, which, through error or design, exclude legitimate sites from search results, irrespective of their relevance. Foundem proposes that search engines should be transparent about the rationale behind these penalties and that affected sites should have access to a timely and transparent appeals process, so that penalties applied in error can be quickly rectified.

Google’s standard reply to the observation that it is dominant in search is to point out that its competition is “just a click away”. While it is true that users have a choice of alternative search engines, the key point is that web sites do not. Because nearly all users choose Google, there is no alternative search engine by which web sites can reach them. The unique role that search plays in steering traffic and revenues through the global digital economy means that Google is not just a monopoly; it is probably the most powerful monopoly in history.

Unfortunately for Google, its “just-a-click-away” mantra does nothing to diminish its responsibilities as a monopoly. It merely underlines the unusual extent to which Google is dependant on preserving its benevolent public image.

Given the absence of healthy competition among search engines and the extraordinary control that search wields over the digital economy, there is an urgent need to address the principles of search neutrality through substantive discussion, anti-trust enforcement, and careful regulation. Google’s diversionary ‘straw man’ tactics must not be allowed to stand as a substitute for informed debate.

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