May 23, 2012

A Perfect Storm: How Government Will Dictate Your Search Results

The vast scope of the Internet makes search engines, such as Google, Bing, and others, crucial aspects of our ability to locate and access information on the Net. After all, if we can't find particular information, if perhaps we don't even know that it exists, it for all practical purposes may not realistically exist for most of us.

To be genuinely useful, most natural (that is organic, non-paid placement) search results from general-purpose search engines must represent a form of opinions, in this case opinions driven by algorithms that are created, refined, and tuned by human beings.

Any time information is ranked by a search engine, rather than (for instance) simply being listed alphabetically as in a telephone directory, algorithmic value judgments are being applied, and since by definition not everyone will achieve the top rankings, there will almost always be some parties disappointed in the ranking outcomes.

The never-ending quest for search quality, which we can reasonably define as the effort to return the most relevant and useful search results for any given query by any given user, is immensely complex, and what's more, involves counteracting actively hostile players who continually attempt to "game" the system through various "black hat" SEO (Search Engine Optimization) techniques and related ploys.

Bottom line: This is complicated stuff.

But for all of the complexity, and even given the fact that most of the hard work and technological "magic" of search ranking occurs behind the scenes for users, I believe it's fair to say that most people feel that the search results they get from Bing, or Google, or most other search engines, are of quite high quality and objective in nature.

This is only logical. Any search engine, no matter how large, is still only a click away from its competitors. A search engine that did not meet the expectations and needs of its users will find itself abandoned in short order. The users must come first.

Unfortunately, a perfect storm of forces is converging on the Internet in ways that represent an enormous censorship risk to users' abilities to obtain search results free from government interference.

In fact, we appear to be rapidly moving toward a possible future where governments around the world will demand to micromanage the search results for effectively all search engines, potentially creating an information control regime of an oppressive nature never before seen.

And naturally, all of this will happen with governments arguing that the crackdowns are all "for the good of the people."

There are multiple origins of these pressures for governments to dictate search engine results.

The security - cybersecurity - political realm is increasingly a factor.

Governments around the world are arguing that search results should be censored to "hide" information that specific governments consider to be dangerous, objectionable, blasphemous, embarrassing, or simply just inconvenient. [CISPA, Cybersecurity, and the Devil in the Dark]

A similar category includes firms and individuals who are unhappy with information regarding them on various Web sites, and desire that search engines remove/censor links that would allow people to easily find those sites during searches. Attempts to codify such desires under the umbrella term "right to be forgotten" are especially prevalent in Europe. [The "Right to Be Forgotten": A Threat We Dare Not Forget]

Also currently focused in Europe, but also in other areas of the world as well, including here in the U.S., are the calls for the nebulous (and I would argue, logically specious) concept of "search neutrality" -- most often invoked now against Google, despite Google's statements (and empirical evidence easily duplicated by most any Web surfer) that Google's natural search results are kept as scrupulously fair as is technologically possible across the enormous scope of the Web. ["Search Neutrality" and Propaganda Deluxe]

And the list goes on.

Taken individually, various of these arguments for search engine censorship and associated government control over search results, may appear to have ostensibly positive motives in some specific cases.

But even if we take that as a given for the sake of the argument, we need to look beyond the individual cases to the combined impact that embarking on a search engine censorship/government information control regime would entail. Because the unavoidable outcome would appear to be virtually total control of search engines by governments, and human history suggests that information control is a power with which no government can be trusted, however altruistic any given government may appear to be at any particular moment in time.

A key reason for this relates to what I've in the past called "Woody Allen's Einstein Argument."

In 1967's spy spoof "Casino Royale," Woody Allen's comedic evil character has this verbal exchange with a captured character played by Daliah Lavi:

Lavi: You're crazy. You are absolutely crazy!
Allen: They called Einstein crazy.
Lavi: That's not true. No one ever called Einstein crazy.
Allen: Well, they would have if he carried on like this.

In other words, it is always possible to postulate actions or intents that are not in evidence.

Regardless of what a firm says about how they're ranking search results, or protecting data, or ... whatever ... it is always possible to suggest they're lying, or that yes, they're honest today but maybe they'll be lying tomorrow! Or maybe they're not evil this year but will turn to the dark side within five years, or ...

Such arguments, of a sort that have become all too common now in our perverse and polarized political environment, lead us away from demonstrable reality, not toward it.

And if you refuse to trust these firms' pronouncements and intentions, what is the alternative? Do you really want to put the micromanagement of search results and determining what information is or is not available, into the hands of politicians? Have we learned nothing at all from history, about how even wonderful political intentions can become adulterated over time?

The commercial search engines like Google and Bing have an obvious self-interest in playing the game honestly. Their users can click away at any time. This is a powerful incentive to stay on the straight and narrow, even beyond basic ethical considerations.

Frankly, I have much more faith in Google, or Bing, or even Facebook in these regards, than I would have for government edicts concerning search engine results or other information control regimes.

Once a government, any government, gets its hands deeply into search engine algorithms and search results, politicians' natural tendencies to ever expand their reach will be irresistible. They will go ever deeper. They will not willingly ever let go. They will have dramatic arguments about why their control is for the sake of the community, but in the end they will crush the life out of information freedom nonetheless.

And don't feel too confident that courts will protect these freedoms.

Google -- correctly -- argues that search results are protected by the U.S. First Amendment, but there are many reasons to suspect that inflated claims of national security concerns, "protect the innocent from the nasty Internet" arguments, and international agreements/treaty obligations could still lead to pervasive government control and censorship of search engine results -- not only just here in the U.S., but around much of the globe.

Of course, the sad truth is that there are many persons who would very much like to see the world of government-controlled search engines come to pass as quickly and comprehensively as possible.

And if this does occur, in the future you may not even be able to find again this very posting that you're reading at this very moment.

Thanks for reading it now -- while you still can.


Posted by Lauren at May 23, 2012 11:02 AM | Permalink
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