Net Neutrality, Search Neutrality, and Al Gore
By Ted Goldsmith for Search Engine Honesty
The net neutrality issue can be summarized as follows: Should Internet Service Providers (ISPs) such as the cable companies and telephone companies be allowed to selectively prioritize communications between their customers and specific destinations on the Internet or should the transmission of data be done in a neutral way that does not consider the destination of a communication? Can ISPs arbitrarily assign preference to business partners or their own content? Can they charge additional fees to content providers for “priority” connections? Could they even arbitrarily block or severely degrade communications by their users to competitors such as competing Internet telephone (VOIP) companies, search engines, and online stores? This issue is being hotly debated in Congress and at the FCC.
Al Gore is a fierce proponent of net neutrality. In his new book The Assault on Reason he says:
“For all the promise of the Internet, there is a serious threat to its potential for revitalizing democracy. The danger arises because there is, in most markets, a very small number of broadband network operators, and this may not change in the near future. These operators have the structural capacity to determine the way in which information is transmitted over the internet and the speed at which it is delivered. And the present Internet network operators—principally large telephone and cable companies—have an economic incentive to extend their control over the physical infrastructure of the Internet to leverage their control of Internet content. If they went about it in the wrong way, these companies could institute changes that have the effect of limiting the free flow of information over the Internet in a number of troubling ways.”
“Network operators could prioritize the transmission of some content—their own for example—over other material produced by competitors. If this was to be allowed, Web companies would lose revenues that they could otherwise devote to improvements in old products and innovations in new ones. Worse yet, the smaller content providers, who can now capitalize on the two-way nature of the Internet—whether online stores or forums for democratic discourse—might be unable to secure quality service online.”
Everything Gore says about ISPs can also be said about search engines. Search engines are essential to our ability to connect to information on the Internet. Search engines also have the structural capacity to interfere with access by their users to specific web information. Search engines also have an economic incentive to control access by their users in order to leverage their own or a partner’s Internet content. There are only three major search engines; together Google, Yahoo, and Microsoft control more than 90 percent of U.S. web searches and Google with its partners controls more than 60 percent (up 5 percent in nine months; Nielsen//Netratings 4/07). For those needing the most comprehensive search, Google is increasingly a sole source and market forces are leading toward yet more consolidation.
In addition to connecting to new web information, users are increasingly using search to connect to known web sites. It is much easier to enter “barnes” or “noble”, or “barns” or even just “books” in a search box than to remember and correctly enter the arcane web address (http://www.barnesandnobel.com/) or create, manage, and remember “favorite places.”
One difference between net neutrality and search neutrality is that the search engines are already suppressing and biasing our access to net information. All the majors maintain “banning” departments that routinely block or suppress access by their users to individually hand-picked web sites without notice and for arbitrary and undisclosed reasons. Search engines maintain that they are publishers and therefore have editorial free-speech rights to delete, bias, edit, or otherwise manipulate organic (non-sponsored) search results in nearly any manner. Most users think of major search “engines” as automated mechanical connection services as opposed to editorial entities and specifically want such a service; if edited information is desired there are much better sources. As with net neutrality, the lack of search neutrality is especially injurious to small business. Political bias in search could allow a tiny group of people to significantly alter our “democratic discourse.”
Another functional difference is that while ISPs are local, major search engines are global and can substantially control user access worldwide. Google’s total impact on Internet information access is much larger than that of any single ISP.
ISPs claim they need the additional fees (beyond the existing Internet access fees at both ends of a communication) for improving their broadband networks and therefore should be allowed to set up “tiered” access with different levels of priority. Search engines claim they need the ability to block or suppress access by their users to particular, hand-picked web sites for arbitrary and undisclosed reasons in order to improve the quality of search results they deliver to their customers and that each deleted site has violated some unspecified content rule. Neither claim is really credible, especially in light of the massive self-interest in both cases. The “quality” argument is particularly dubious. Search users are not given the option of seeing editorially deleted sites (“Click here to repeat the search with editorially deleted sites included.”), even if their search produces no results. Users are not even told that hand-picked sites are being deleted. Users can easily connect to millions of pages of pornography and other utter garbage via any major search engine. Sites that have been deleted by Google can still buy text ads from Google advertising and linking to the site and Google routinely displays its text ads on partner sites that have been deleted from access by Google search users. “Quality” is obviously not a credible justification for editorial deletion or suppression.
Some might say it is unfair to compare ISPs with search engines because it is relatively difficult to switch ISPs whereas one can easily switch search engines unless the most comprehensive search is needed. Long distance phone companies provide a helpful analogy in this regard. There are many long distance companies and one can easily switch between them, even on a call-by-call basis. So would it be OK for a long distance company (perhaps one that controls 60 percent of all long distance calls) to block or degrade connections by their customers to particular destination businesses for arbitrary reasons and without notice? Would it be OK for them to charge some arbitrarily selected businesses extra fees in order to receive calls? Would it be OK for them to do this without notifying callers in any particular case or even generally that they were blocking calls? If not, why should it be OK for ISPs and search engines that also provide increasingly essential connection services? Internet connection is now more important than phone connection for many businesses.
Others might say that search engines are inherently editorial in nature and that ranking of search results requires a series of essentially editorial judgments. Web site owners have no objection to sorting criteria that are applied equally to all web sites in an automated manner or to rules for web site content that are clearly defined and fairly applied. (ISPs and telcos have rules too.) The objection is to arbitrary manual deletion of entire sites for undisclosed reasons, gross ranking bias against specific hand-selected sites, and vague “guidelines” that are arbitrarily enforced on only some sites and conspicuously not applied to others.
Yet another argument is that there is nothing wrong with ISPs and search engines arbitrarily restricting Internet information access or even with editorial monopolies in these areas because there are other sources of information such as radio, TV, and print media. (Regulators are considering allowing a total monopoly in satellite radio via the Sirius/XM merger based on the idea that other comparable sources of radio service exist.) However, Gore speaks eloquently to the fact that the Web is qualitatively different from other sources and to the idea that information freedom on the Internet is vital to the American democratic process and small business.
Gore is a major Google stockholder and senior adviser to Google management. (In the book he admits to having a “financial interest” in Google.) Google might well be the largest single loser if ISPs are allowed to breach net neutrality and give priority to their own search services. Operators of web sites (especially small business operators), Internet users, and “democratic discourse” will be victims in loss of either search or net neutrality.
What does Al Gore have to say about search neutrality? Should search engines be allowed to continue the same sorts of practices having the same effects that Gore decries if proposed by ISPs? Does the neutrality issue cut both ways or does it entirely depend (excuse the expression) on “whose ox is being gored.” Loss of search neutrality would certainly appear to be a greater threat to democracy and the American way. (Gore’s office declined comment on the search neutrality issue for this article.)
People worried about net neutrality (except for search engine owners) should be at least equally worried about search neutrality. If search engines are indeed publishers, then the public should be educated and the appalling lack of diversity corrected. If search engines provide a connection service, then they should follow rules similar to those applied to telcos and other information carriers. Solving the neutrality issue needs regulation or legislation that constrains search engines as well as ISPs.
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