In competing op-eds published days apart, Google's VP of search product and user experience, Marissa Mayer went head to head with the New York Times editorial board over search neutrality. While it's net neutrality that has consumed tech-policy wonks in Washington recently, it seems search neutrality, the belief that Web search results ought to be unbiased, is rapidly becoming the topic du jour. Although search engines such as Google and Bing (ahem, "decision" engines) claim their complicated algorithms produce impartial results, some observers are beginning to call for government regulation. Here's why.
The New York Times argues that Google in particular has too much power over the Internet, with roughly two-thirds of all search queries handled by the service. With the methods of its algorithm kept highly secret, any tweaks to the system by Google are left unmonitored, and could potentially be self-serving. "Rivals have accused Google of placing the Web sites of affiliates like Google Maps or YouTube at the top of Internet searches and relegating competitors to obscurity down the list," explains the NYT, which points out that its recent acquisition of flight-info software company ITA should invite even more scrutiny.
The op-ed calls for government oversight of Google, the "gatekeeper of the Internet," which tweaks its system hundreds of times a year. But the NYT is aware of the likelihood that sludge-paced government commissions won't be able to keep up with Google, and wary of potential abuse the system would see if the company's algorithm were made public. "The government must be careful not to stifle [Google's] ability to innovate," the piece reads. "Requiring each algorithm tweak to be approved by regulators could drastically slow down its improvements."
In her piece in the Financial Times, Mayer runs through the problems of government intervention. She contends that with a quarter of all daily searches—that's 70 million queries—never before seen by Google, their engineers constantly need to update the system to improve the engine, and indeed do so once or twice a day. But Mayer's main point is that regulation would stifle competition.
"The strongest arguments against rules for 'neutral search' is that they would make the ranking of results on each search engine similar, creating a strong disincentive for each company to find new, innovative ways to seek out the best answers on an increasingly complex web," she argues. "Without competition and experimentation between companies, how could the rules keep up?"
Mayer and Google are clearly taking the market-knows-best approach, arguing that users—and not bureaucrats—will know what search results and engines are best. Whether or not that's true (I tend to believe it is), that view will likely remain the popular one, and will keep this policy debate out of Washington. When the FCC began pushing for net neutrality in May, for example, right-leaning politicians including senator John Ensign already started their too-often-heard jeers that this would result in a "government takeover" of the Internet.
For such a complicated issue as search neutrality, one dotted with many potential political land-mines, it's doubtful any administration will pursue a policy fight against the powerful and popular Google.
After all, how could they win that fight—doesn't Google control the Internet?