Saturday, January 22, 2011

'Search Neutrality:' Deciding What We're Allowed to Find?

"Regulating Google's Results? Law Prof Calls 'Search Neutrality' Incoherent"
Nate Anderson, ars technica, via Epicenter, Wired, (January 22, 2011)

"'Neutrality' — if it's good enough for the core of the internet, isn't it good enough for the edge? The biggest internet providers say it is, and they would love to have the government slap a few neutrality rules on Google, just to see how the advertising giant likes the taste of the regulatory bridle.

" In 2010, while the FCC was debating net neutrality rules, ISPs like Time Warner Cable settled on a 'they're gatekeepers, too!' strategy.

" 'Google has led the charge to adopt regulation to ensure internet openness, yet it has the ability and incentive to engage in a range of decidedly non-neutral conduct due to its control over so many aspects of the internet experience,' said one representative filing. 'Google's core search application relies on a pay-for-priority scheme that is squarely at odds with its proposed neutrality requirements for broadband-internet-access service providers.'..."

"...But outside the den of self-interest that is an FCC docket, academics were also pondering the question. In 2009, for instance, well-respected University of Minnesota scholar Andrew Odlyzko suggested that net neutrality (which he favored) might then 'open the way for other players, such as Google, that emerge from that open and competitive arena as big winners, to become choke points. So it would be wise to prepare to monitor what happens, and be ready to intervene by imposing neutrality rules on them when necessary.'

"But what does it even mean when we talk about applying 'neutrality' to search - which is all about subjective rankings of relevance?

"James Grimmelmann, associate professor at the New York Law School, ran through eight main principles that underlie various 'search neutrality' arguments. He found every one of them 'incoherent.'..."

Reality Check, Please?

First, the Lemming notes a curious assertion by some anonymous "representative:" "...'Google's core search application relies on a pay-for-priority scheme that is squarely at odds with its proposed neutrality requirements for broadband-internet-access service providers.'.."

Google does run a context-sensitive advertising service, AdSense, and has other sources of revenue connected with its search service. But the Lemming has never paid Google a cent - and has had posts wind up in the top ten search results. Not often, but my Apathetic Lemming of the North and other blogs aren't that big a piece of the Internet.

The Lemming uses Blogger to maintain this and other blogs. Blogger is economically connected to Google, but Blogger hasn't seen a cent of the Lemming's money, either.

And yet folks find my posts through Google. That "pay-for-priority scheme" can't be all that effective at subverting searches.

Search Engines "Systematically Favoring Certain Types of Content" is a DEFECT?!

There's more to the article, including this list of possible ways to enforce "neutrality" on search engines:
  • Equality
  • Objectivity
  • Bias
  • Traffic
  • Relevance
  • Self interest
  • Transparency
  • Manipulation
Sounds groovy, doesn't it? Back to the ars technica/Epicenter article for a bit:

"...Most of these [possible bases for search-neutrality regulation] are dealt with by the simple (and obvious) objection that 'systematically favoring certain types of content over others isn't a defect for a search engine: It's the point. If I search for 'Machu Picchu pictures,' I want to see llamas in a ruined city on a cloud-forest mountaintop, not horny housewives who whiten your teeth while you wait for them to refinance your mortgage. Search inevitably requires some form of editorial control.'..."

Power to the People: REAL Power

The Lemming suspects - strongly - that what's bothering quite a few 'neutrality' advocates is that Americans no longer depend on a handful of Yankee gentlemen and social-climbing wannabes for the bulk of their information about the nation and the world. (Another War on Terror Blog (June 27, 2008)) The Lemming doesn't mind being able to find up-to-date information, even if it didn't pass muster with The New York Times editors. The Lemming also thinks that it's okay for 'the masses' to have access to information - on our terms, not depending on what some board of censors or federal busybodies thinks we should know.

I also think that folks should be allowed to use dangerous substances and technologies: like LP gas, anhydrous ammonia, printing presses and computers. Except for those few who have demonstrated an inability to behave well - like some convicted felons. (Another War on Terror Blog (June 27, 2008)) You could say that the Lemming thinks 'power to the people' is a good idea. Real power, not the privilege of being told what to think, 'for our own good.'

That doesn't sound "apathetic," but - well, the Lemming's discussed that sort of thing before.

Bottom line: In the Lemming's opinion, 'search engine neutrality' sounds a lot like the sort of 'tolerance' imposed on students in the heyday of political correctness, and Chinese leadership's preference that the masses be fed 'correct' information. (March 24, 2010) And, again in the Lemming's opinion, depending on our 'betters' on Capital Hill to decide how search engines are allowed to work is a really bad idea.

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Left-footer said...

Very interesting, and something I had never even thought about.

Thank you.

Brian, aka Aluwir, aka Norski said...


Thank *you:* That's high praise.

I hope that enough folks realize what "neutrality" can imply - before we lose the sort of open marketplace of ideas that we've got now.

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