Science & Technology

The Air You Breathe, the Water You Drink, the Google You Search


Is Google a public utility? That's essentially what the New York Times editorial board seems to be saying today:

Google says it only tweaks its algorithm to improve its searches. Some Web sites that have accused Google of unfair placing are merely collections of links with next to no original content of their own, precisely the kind of sites that Google's search algorithm screens out to better answer queries….Still, the potential impact of Google's algorithm on the Internet economy is such that it is worth exploring ways to ensure that the editorial policy guiding Google's tweaks is solely intended to improve the quality of the results and not to help Google's other businesses.

What policies might be "worth exploring?"

Some early suggestions for how to accomplish this include having Google explain with some specified level of detail the editorial policy that guides its tweaks. Another would be to give some government commission the power to look at those tweaks.   

Another possibility would be to resist the urge to regulate entirely rather than compulsively fretting about a lack of bureaucratic oversight every time a company develops a widely used service or product. The Times editorial board seems vaguely cognizant of its compulsion, cautioning the reader—and perhaps itself—that "Google provides an incredibly valuable service, and the government must be careful not to stifle its ability to innovate." But in the end, the urge is too strong. "If Google is to continue to be the main map to the information highway," the piece concludes, "it concerns us all that it leads us fairly to where we want to go." The assumption here is that Google effectively belongs to the public now. And because it belongs to the public, the company has an obligation to the public to provide "fair" search results, while the government has the duty to define what constitutes fairness—and enforce it. In other words, Google, whose ingenuity has helped millions chart the web, should be forced to play by the rules of a handful of Washington regulators in service of a nebulous public interest that those same few regulators get to define. Tell me again: What's fair about that?

Previously, I noted efforts to regulate Google's search technology here.