Search neutrality

I’ve written on this blog before (here and here) that I am against network neutrality, because it is a technically flawed and almost universally misunderstood solution to an as-yet nonexistent problem.

Now people are beginning to call for “search neutrality”. Technically there is no relation at all between network and search neutrality, but the two are likely to become politically entangled. The idea to search neutrality is that search providers (i.e., Google) ought not use their power deliberately to direct customers to some services in which they have a financial interest (particularly theirs) over others.

There are two immediate differences we can observe between search neutrality and network neutrality. First, there are no technical problems with search neutrality. Unlike network neutrality, search neutrality would not hurt network performance or stifle innovation. Second, search neutrality is targeted at a problem that actually exists. Google does use its search influence to direct customers to its own services.

Is search neutrality therefore a good idea? That’s not so clear.

Generally I’m against government intervention in the marketplace, but I make an exception in the case of monopolistic (and oligopolistic) behavior. It is appropriate for the government to take action to protect individuals in non-competitive markets. Of course, in most cases, monopolies exists because of the action of the government. In such cases, the government should simply remove the barriers to entry that it has erected itself. There also exists a few instances of natural monopolies, typically utilities. The science of regulating public utilities to ensure efficient resource allocation is fairly well-understood.

Then there’s the rarest of all cases, in which a company establishes a dominant position through superior business practices or technical insight that, for some reason, other companies are unable to duplicate. It’s impossible to make any universal rule in such a case, but I would make two related observations: First, the government always seems to overreact in such circumstances. (Witness the government’s persecution of IBM and the ham-handed AT&T breakup.) Second, such circumstances are invariably far more temporary than people seem to suppose.

On general libertarian principles, I’m against forcing Google to order its search results in any fashion other than how they choose. With a 65% market share, Google isn’t a monopolistic player yet, so there’s no need yet to contemplate an exception on such grounds. Furthermore, it would be very hard to fashion a rule that would prevent search rigging while permitting legitimate innovation.

On the other hand, Google should be pressured to reveal their methodology. Their official blog contains a weak explanation of why their purported dedication to openness does not apply to their search algorithm. Basically they say that their page-ranking algorithm is not robust (my words, not theirs) and publishing it would make it easy for people to manipulate it. That might be so. But there is no reason why they shouldn’t publish the exceptions they make to their page-ranking algorithm. The only reason I see for keeping the exceptions secret is their publication might make Google look bad.

(Via Big Government.)

POSTSCRIPT: When I say that Google isn’t a monopolistic player yet, I’m referring of course to web search. They are a monopolistic player in the business of stealing books. Astonishingly, a federal court has not only given Google approval to steal copyrighted books, it has also made Google the only one that can do so. (Again, most monopolies exist due to government action.) There’s also other good reason to dislike Google, such as its growing record of censorship. So if Google did face some government persecution, my sympathy for them would be limited.

(Previous post.)

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