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Would the Real Search Neutrality Please Stand Up

June 4th, 2012 No comments

The following was first published on May 30 2012, as an Op-Ed for ORGZine (the Digital Rights magazine of the Open Rights Group)

As the gateway to the Internet for the vast majority of users, Google has unparalleled influence over which content and services people discover, read, and use. Before Google’s need for growth compelled it to look beyond horizontal search, this unfettered market power wasn’t necessarily a problem. Google tended to focus its efforts on providing the best possible search results for its users, even though that usually meant steering them to other people’s websites as quickly as possible. Starting around 2005, however, Google began to develop a significant conflicting interest—to steer users, not to other people’s services, but to its own growing stable of competing services, in price comparison, travel search, social networking, and so on.

By manipulating its search results in ways that systematically promote its own services while demoting or excluding those of its competitors, Google can exploit its gatekeeper advantage to commandeer a substantial proportion of the traffic and revenues of almost any website or industry sector it chooses. As a result, there is now a growing chasm between the enduring public perception of Google as comprehensive and impartial and the reality that it has become increasingly neither.

The debate about net neutrality has tended to focus exclusively on the issues of equal access to the physical infrastructure of the Internet (the network), while ignoring the issues of equal access to its navigational infrastructure (the search engines). If we are to protect equal access to the Internet for users, established businesses, and the innovative start-ups that will power the next wave of growth of the digital economy, we must broaden our horizons beyond network neutrality to include the equally important principle of search neutrality.

In October 2009, we defined search neutrality as the principle that search engine results should be driven by the pursuit of relevance and not skewed for commercial gain. Search neutrality is particularly pressing, because Google’s 85% share of the global search market (90% in the UK and 95% in much of Europe) places so much market power in the hands of a single US corporation. And there is ample evidence that Google is already abusing this power. Our European Competition Complaint against Google, submitted in November 2009, describes how Google leverages its overwhelming dominance of horizontal search to unprecedented and virtually unassailable advantage in adjacent sectors.

Despite being one of network neutrality’s most enthusiastic advocates, Google is fighting against the growing calls for search neutrality. In December 2009, we posed a question to Google: how can discriminatory market power be dangerous in the hands of a network provider, but somehow harmless in the hands of an overwhelmingly dominant search engine? So far, Google’s response has been evasive. Because it is difficult for Google to argue against the actual principles of search neutrality—the same principles it has long advocated for network providers—it has contrived an imaginary and fundamentally distorted version to argue against instead.

Clearly, no two search engines will produce exactly the same search results; nor should they. In many cases there is no “right” answer, and no two search engines will agree on the optimum set of search results for a given query. But any genuine pursuit of the most relevant results must, by definition, preclude any form of arbitrary discrimination. The problem for Google is that its Universal Search mechanism, which systematically promotes Google’s own services, and its increasingly heavy-handed penalty algorithms, which systematically demote or exclude Google’s rivals, are both clear examples of financially motivated arbitrary discrimination.

Despite Google’s concerted efforts to derail the search neutrality debate, by arguing vehemently against a form of search neutrality that no one is advocating, the real search neutrality has become an increasingly important focal point for those concerned about the insidious power of search engine bias. Most recently the EPP Group, Europe’s largest coalition of MEPs, declared search neutrality a core component of its Internet Strategy, and BEUC, the European Consumer Organisation, wrote an open letter calling on the European Commission to protect the principle of search neutrality.

In the traditional bricks-and-mortar world, Google’s anti-competitive practices would be obvious to all. In the seemingly impenetrable world of Internet search, however, Google’s ability to get away with these practices has often depended on its ability to bamboozle people: our video deconstructing Google’s recent testimony to the US Senate Antitrust Subcommittee provides the first public glimpse of the extent to which this strategy unravels in the face of informed scrutiny.

Google’s standard reply to the observation that it has a monopoly in search is to point out that “competition is just a click away”. But, Google operates in a two-sided market–with users on one side and websites on the other. While it is true that users have a choice of alternative search engines, the key point is that websites do not. As long as nearly all users continue to choose Google—as they have consistently done for the last decade—then businesses and websites have no alternative search engine by which to reach them.

The competitors Google is referring to when it says “competition is just a click away” are rival horizontal search engines like Yahoo and Bing, but the businesses being harmed by the anti-competitive practices described in our Complaint are not these rival horizontal search engines; they are the thousands of businesses that compete with Google’s other services—in price comparison, online video, digital mapping, news aggregation, local search, travel search, financial search, job search, property search, social networking, and so on.

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. Given the absence of healthy competition among search engines, and Google’s growing conflict of interest as it continues to expand into new services, there is an urgent need to address the principles of search neutrality through thoughtful debate, rigorous anti-trust enforcement, and perhaps very careful regulation.

Adam and Shivaun Raff,
Co-Founders of www.foundem.co.uk and www.SearchNeutrality.org

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