A pair of Google-commissioned papers, one released just today, have triggered considerable controversy relating to ongoing antitrust investigations of Google by various regulators, including the U.S. Federal Trade Commission (FTC) and the European Commission.
The first of these reports explores issues of First Amendment protections as applied to search results, the latter examines various proposed "remedies" for the supposed "search bias" of which Google has been accused by some parties.
These are both relatively long, rather legalistically focused documents, and there have been complaints regarding their having been commissioned by Google itself.
Those complaints seem specious. The facts described by these reports are public record, open for everyone to see. The analysis presented in both will either stand or fall based on their own content, irrespective of who paid for their creation.
Perhaps of more concern is the fact that most of us aren't lawyers, and the majority of observers probably will not have the patience to dig through those detailed documents in their entirety.
So let's see if we can cut to the chase.
Why does Google exist? Or more to the point, if you use Google services -- and you probably do -- why do you do so? What are you (not in terms of topics, but in terms of your experience as a user) looking for when you use Google Search?
I believe it's appropriate to focus on Google Search here, rather than the range of other Google services. While Search is but one aspect of an increasingly interrelated palette of Google-provided services, Search tends to be the center of attention both for users and critics of Google.
It's popular in some quarters (particularly among Google's various adversaries), to refer to Google as a "monopoly," but this is demonstrably a false characterization by any normal definition of the word.
In fact, just a few days ago, a "Slate" author noted how trivially easy it was to switch from Google Search to Microsoft's Bing, and that he found the search results from Bing to generally be quite similar to those he obtained from Google.
So this brings us to the Search Results themselves.
Google's mission statement is well known: "To organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful."
Yet have you ever really stopped to consider what "useful" actually means on the enormous and rapidly expanding Web?
There are many sources of "information" on the Internet.
If you simply want to look up the names and address of local merchants, you can use various "white pages" sites or other directories. If you're more interested in the additional data that paid advertising brings to your decision-making process, there are "yellow pages" sites, and a range of other directory sites for that purpose as well.
But when you go to a general purpose search engine, like Bing, or Google, or one of the many others, you're either explicitly or implicitly almost always looking for opinions or answers.
*Opinions* -- opinions in terms of the search engine's recommendations about which sites will most usefully meet the criteria of your search, and the key word here is very much *usefully*. For when looking at organic (natural, non-ad) search results listings, you're almost always actually seeking an appraisal, an opinion, not a simple directory listing per se.
That's what Google and Bing (to name just two) try to accomplish. They attempt to provide useful opinions about which sites on the Net will be most useful to answer your query, or when your query is such that a direct answer can be provided, to offer that result directly for your convenience, as well as a list of recommended sites for relevant additional perusal.
This is the very essence of providing the best user experience. This is the goal, what these sites are actually all about.
And succeeding at this complex task, by definition, involves value judgments -- opinions. In this case, opinions and judgments made by complex algorithms, constantly being tweaked to make sense of the essentially infinite range of possible combinations and Internet destinations, not to mention accomplishing the enormous task of weeding out spam, phishing sites, and sites trying to unfairly "game" the system through various forms of subterfuge.
Understanding these efforts by search engines -- not only by Google -- to provide genuinely *useful* search results is important toward recognizing why demands for nebulous and dangerous concepts such as "search neutrality" make no sense, and would be utterly disastrous to users.
Because "search neutrality" would literally represent -- one way or another -- the government dictating the opinions of search engines, micromanaging search results, and inevitably morphing search engines from providers of useful answers and recommendations, into "fend for yourself" directories and listing services.
In fact, the concept of compulsory "neutrality" is effectively contradictory to the candid presentation of opinions. Honest opinions are almost never neutral. It's like the old Soviet Union, where you were free to publicly and impotently espouse any opinions you wished, so long as they were identical to the formal party line.
Trying to enforce "neutrality" in search results means that algorithmically evolved judgments to usefully order sites for the best query results become forbidden -- resulting in a chaos of lost confidence at the hands of government associated "search purity" bureaucrats.
To make information *useful*. That's the goal of Google, and Bing, and the many other sites that index the Internet in various ways. There are many choices, many options, many opinions, innumerable points of view.
Concepts such as "search neutrality" would be a death knell to genuinely useful, reliable, and trustworthy search results, and provide the government with an unprecedented ability to control the presentation of Internet information as it sees fit, now and into the future.
Personally, I very much prefer to have search results decisions in the hands of Google, and Bing, and the other organizations whose agenda is providing maximally *useful* information for the global community of Internet users.
Enforced "search neutrality" could easily mean the end of search as we know it, and the beginning of a broad, encompassing, government-mandated Internet information control dominion.
That's my opinion, anyway.