I’m happy to announce that my latest piece, Some Skepticism About Search Neutrality, has just been published in The Next Digital Decade, a new volume of essays about Internet policy. As the title suggests, it’s a contribution to the discussion over “search neutrality,” the idea that search engines should be legally required to exercise some form of even-handed treatment of the websites they rank. It’s been a major topic in the news recently, particularly with the EU antitrust investigation. Websites like Foundem and SourceTool have been joined by independent critics like Consumer Watchdog and a growing number of academics. They share a sense that dominant search engines, especially Google, have too much power to be allowed to be anything but neutral.
Having now read and thought through the academic and popular arguments for search neutrality, I’m skeptical. The problem is that no one has offered a good definition of what it would mean for a search engine to be truly “neutral.” In working through the search neutrality literature, I came across eight different possible meanings. Not one of them works. Some, like equality, the idea that search engines shouldn’t differentiate between websites, are simply incoherent: people use search engines because they make useful distinctions between websites. Others, like relevance, the idea that search engines should try to maximize user satisfaction, are too vague to be meaningfully enforceable by regulators. Worst of all are the proposals, like objectivity, the idea that search engines should return only “good” search results, that would dictate what search users are and aren’t allowed to see, rather than letting them choose for themselves.
Search neutrality may have noble goals, but it could do a great deal of harm to the Internet. Spammers and black-hat search-engine-optimizers would love it if Google were required to use a uniform, fully transparent algorithm. Low-quality websites would love to cry “search neutrality” any time they lose in the rankings to better websites that users like more. In both cases, search engine users would be the real losers.
This isn’t an across-the-board defense of search engines. They raise other, legitimate issues: antitrust, copyright, and stealth marketing, to name just a few. But I’m unconvinced that search neutrality is one of them. It takes attention away from the real issues at stake; it substitutes unhelpful and confused tests for careful analysis under better-established bodies of law.
The book is available either as a free download or in hard copy. I’ve put my chapter online as a PDF with my usual Creative Commons license. I’ve also prepared an HTML version with a slightly updated bibliography. I hope you’ll read one of them and join the conversation. (At the very least, find out why I start by quoting Sergey Brin, Jonathan Edwards, and Voltaire.) As always, I value your thoughts and comments.