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SHEFFIELD: Google gets hammered by monsters it created

Search neutrality: Solving a problem that doesn’t exist

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You don't have to believe in karma to find the irony in the fact that the Web giant Google is finding itself in the cross hairs of the same pressure groups that it funded back when it was pushing heavily for "network neutrality."

The latest cause celebre among this crowd is "search neutrality," the idea that somehow the government needs to get into the business of Internet search engines.

After spending millions funding network-neutrality advocates when it was trying to pass along its bandwidth costs to consumers and companies such as Verizon and Comcast, Google is finding itself being opposed by its former allies, who are bent on finding another sector of the Internet to take over.

Beyond the Orwellian name similarity, search neutrality is the same concept as network neutrality except that instead of controlling cable Internet bills, the government would be controlling what you do or do not see when you pull up Bing or Google.

That may not seem like such a big deal at first because most of us couldn't remember the top hits for any of the search queries we use, but imagine if the concept were extended to other media: Instead of turning on the television and seeing the news your favorite TV or radio host has selected, you would see what the government told him he could say was the most important.

Not even the most ardent Fairness Doctrine supporters would advocate for this governmental intrusion into media. Search-neutrality supporters don't realize that the trust we give to people like Rush Limbaugh or Rachel Maddow to help us find the important news is the exact type of trust we give to search engines to retrieve the search results most relevant to what we're seeking.

Search-neutrality advocates are correct that there is no way we can know to what degree our results are colored by our search site's corporate ties or opinions, but that is hardly an argument for the government to insert itself into the search. After all, as legal scholar Eric Goldman recently noted at a conference on this subject sponsored by the libertarian think tank TechFreedom, no one is calling for the government to intervene in off-line media. "We have no clue how newspapers decide what stories to print and where to print them, but we still can evaluate the papers and decide if it's of quality to us."

That certainly seems to be happening in the realm of search, where the Microsoft-owned Bing powered about 32 percent of searches in the past 12 months, according to Web statistics firm ComScore. There are many reasons for this, but surely one of them is that Bing sometimes is more useful in the results it returns. If Google continues to get the bad press it has received of late for leaning leftward in its policies, hiring and donations, there's no doubt it will lose market share from right-leaning Americans in the same way that CNN, the inventor of cable news, has lost much of its audience to Fox News Channel. Were Google to really skew results in favor of its many subsidiary sites, it also would lose market share if it made them less useful compared to Bing. If Google really got bad at skewing results, there are plenty of restraint-of-trade and anti-monopoly laws on the books to put a stop to it.

Dramatic government intervention in the search-engine market is also unlikely to be effective, largely because all the major services routinely recalibrate their indexing algorithms to block the influence of spammers whose goal is to move illegitimate sites higher up in search rankings. Glacial government has no chance at keeping up with such a frenetic pace. Even if it were able to do so, we have no indication that bureaucratic fiats would be any more effective at keeping our search results fair than the Fairness Doctrine was able to keep bias out of network television news.

Like its hardware-based predecessor "network neutrality," search neutrality is a solution in search of a problem. There is no evidence of any widespread consumer need or request for the government to insert itself into our Web searches.

Matthew Sheffield is president of Dialog New Media.

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