The Googlecomm Fable

Search Engine Honesty

 

This tale of an imaginary long distance company illustrates the problems that are caused if an essential communications connection service such as Internet search is treated as an editorial publishing activity.  The imaginary business Smallco is in a position very similar to many real on-line companies who depend on the search industry to connect with their customers.

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Once upon a time in the land of Nod there was a long distance telephone company named Googlecomm.  Googlecomm was very successful; about 56 percent of the people in the entire world used Googlecomm as their long distance phone connection service. 

 

At the same time there was a mail order business called Smallco.  Smallco was largely dependent on incoming (mainly long distance) phone calls for orders.  After many years of hard work, Smallco had become pretty successful in its small niche business.

 

But then disaster struck.  Googlecomm started blocking all incoming calls to Smallco that were made through the Googlecomm system.  Googlecomm did not give Smallco any advance notice or explanation.  Googlecomm’s users were not told that their calls had been blocked by Googlecomm.  They were not even told that Googlecomm blocked calls.  There was no recorded message that said “Sorry, you are not allowed to call this number through Googlecomm, try another long distance company.”  Instead, callers just heard an endlessly ringing phone when they tried to call Smallco through Googlecomm.  Many of Smallco’s customers thought that Smallco had gone out of business, or that it was run by incompetents who never answered the phone.  Googlecomm people told anyone who noticed that they were blocking calls that all of the businesses they blocked “had done something wrong.”  Creditors, associates, and suppliers heard that Smallco had been blocked by Googlecomm and reacted adversely.  

 

Googlecomm published a popular directory that showed "rank" of listed businesses.  Rank was actually the only unique thing about Googlecomm's directory and the only reason for using Googlecomm's directory as opposed to other similar directories. Googlecomm told directory users and other users of rank data that the ranks were determined by "honest" and "objective" criteria. However, companies selected for arbitrary blocking by Googlecomm were designated by a rank of "zero" (worst) on Googlecomm's list without regard to the objective criteria.  Smallco was given a new rank of zero even though based on the "honest" and "objective" criteria it had previously had a high rank. Googlecomm's negative characterization of Smallco in their directory was essentially a lie.

 

Smallco’s business tanked. 

 

Smallco contacted Googlecomm.

 

 “Why are you blocking my calls?” asked Smallco.

 

“You violated one of our rules,” said Googlecomm.

 

“Which one?” asked Smallco.

 

“We won’t tell you that.  They are secret rules.  We are the only ones who know what they are much less which one you violated, and we're not telling,” said Googlecomm.

 

Smallco said, “Then how am I supposed to fix it?”

 

“That’s your problem,” said Googlecomm.

 

“You can’t do that!” said Smallco.

 

“Yes we can.  It’s our company and our fiber optics and our servers and we can do whatever we want.  Besides, you are not our customer.  The people who make the calls are our customers.  They are the ones paying us.  We have no obligation to you.   If people don't like it they are free to use another long distance company.  We are only a semi-monopoly."

 

"But the callers that use your system don't know that you are arbitrarily blocking their calls," said Smallco.

 

"That's their problem," said Googlecomm.

 

“What am I supposed to do?” asked Smallco.

 

“Well, you could always buy advertising from us,” said Googlecomm.   “If you do, we will let you get some incoming calls.”

 

“So, you are forcing me to pay for incoming calls that my competition is getting for free,” said Smallco.  “How am I supposed to compete?”

 

“That's your problem,” said Googlecomm.

 

"You would never have done this if we were a big business like Bigco with lots of lawyers and publicists and friends on Capitol Hill," said Smallco.

 

"That's true," said Googlecomm, "Number one on our call blocker's list of instructions is: Don't block anyone with lawyers, publicists, or friends on Capitol Hill. We only arbitrarily block calls to small businesses."

 

And they all lived happily ever after, except for the folks at Smallco and other small businesses and organizations arbitrarily blocked by Googlecomm and other long distance companies.

 

Smallco subsequently found out that Googlecomm was operating its own mail order business and had business relationships with other mail order businesses.  Suddenly everything became clear to Smallco. Googlecomm was using its position as a connection company to attack their competition.  As long as it was legal, it made sound business sense to do so. Googlecomm was a company.  Their job was to make money for their stockholders. As long as it was legal, it was good business to blackball competing businesses in the Googlecomm directory in addition to blocking their calls. 

 

Smallco thought that eventually all mail order businesses and other businesses dependent on long distance phone connections would be owned or controlled by long distance companies. Smallco decided to close their business.

 

Googlecomm was very pleased with the success of their call blocking program and the beneficial effect it was having on their bottom line, but was being inundated by complaints from small businesses blocked for arbitrary reasons. They eventually refused any communications from such businesses, which, after all, were not their customers. Call-receiving businesses actually had to stipulate, in writing, in advance, that they were not complaining about being blocked for arbitrary unknown reasons in order to communicate with Googlecomm.

 

When official complaints were made, Googlecomm argued that even though the speech they were transmitting originated from the call-receiving companies, or from third party callers, that Googlecomm, somehow, had "editorial free-speech" rights to arbitrarily, selectively block that speech.  Googlecomm further argued that they had a free-speech right to have an "opinion" about the speech being generated by the call-receiving businesses, or other aspects of those businesses, and could arbitrarily block connections based on that opinion.  According to Googlecomm, Googlecomm's free-speech rights trumped those of the businesses being blocked.  Googlecomm argued that ranks published in their directory were also "editorial opinions" even though they were telling users the opposite.

 

Eventually, a long time later, the courts and legislators of Nod determined that long distance companies were not allowed to arbitrarily block access by their users to particular destination phones for undisclosed reasons.  This decision was not based on Googlecomm's semi-monopoly position but applied to all long distance companies. The courts found that just because there was some other way of connecting to a business such as telegraph, postal mail, and fax, did not mean that long distance companies had "editorial free-speech" rights to arbitrarily block phone connections. Henceforth, phone companies had to clearly and publicly define all the rules.  The rules could not be arbitrarily applied to some businesses and not others, but had to be fairly applied.  Googlecomm had to demonstrate that each rule was reasonably necessary to the conduct of Googlecomm's business.  A business that was blocked had a right to be advised, in advance, of the specific reason they were being blocked. Upon correcting the problem, the business had a right to prompt restoration of service.  Forcing some businesses to pay for services that other businesses got for free was considered an unfair trade practice. Practices that discriminate against small business were considered particularly unfair.

 

They further decided that  representing that businesses “did something wrong” without being willing to state and demonstrate the exact nature of the alleged offense constituted defamation, essentially character assassination, a prime case of "adding insult to injury".  Falsely claiming that a company ranked low based on objective "honest" criteria was considered libel.

 

Unfortunately, all this happened too late for Smallco.

 

The people of Nod had no way of knowing that in the United States, laws similar to the ones described above already applied to telephone companies. Someday they will also apply to search engines, which are as essential to on-line companies as telephone service is to traditional companies.

 

Search Engine Honesty

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