[IRP] 'search neutrality' to go with net neutrality

Parminder parminder
Tue Dec 29 07:32:17 EET 2009

See below an interesting article on how the company that seeks to 
'organise the world's knowledge' really may be doing it. It is time we 
called for complete disclosure in public interest of search logics of 
Google and other search engine, which truly are now a (the?) principal 
source of information and knowledge globally. Also a point to ponder for 
those who think everything, including controlling excesses of market 
power, can be done bottom-up and may not need policy regimes.



  Search, but You May Not Find

Published: December 27, 2009

AS we become increasingly dependent on the Internet, we need to be 
increasingly concerned about how it is regulated. The Federal 
Communications Commission has proposed "network neutrality" rules, which 
would prohibit Internet service providers from discriminating against or 
charging premiums for certain services or applications on the Web. The 
commission is correct that ensuring equal access to the infrastructure 
of the Internet is vital, but it errs in directing its regulations only 
at service providers like AT&T and Comcast.

Today, search engines like Google, Yahoo and Microsoft's new Bing have 
become the Internet's gatekeepers, and the crucial role they play in 
directing users to Web sites means they are now as essential a component 
of its infrastructure as the physical network itself. The F.C.C. needs 
to look beyond network neutrality and include "search neutrality": the 
principle that search engines should have no editorial policies other 
than that their results be comprehensive, impartial and based solely on 

The need for search neutrality is particularly pressing because so much 
market power lies in the hands of one company: Google. With 71 percent 
of the United States search market (and 90 percent in Britain), Google's 
dominance of both search and search advertising gives it overwhelming 
control. Google's revenues exceeded $21 billion last year, but this 
pales next to the hundreds of billions of dollars of other companies' 
revenues that Google controls indirectly through its search results and 
sponsored links.

One way that Google exploits this control is by imposing covert 
"penalties" that can strike legitimate and useful Web sites, removing 
them entirely from its search results or placing them so far down the 
rankings that they will in all likelihood never be found. For three 
years, my company's vertical search and price-comparison site, Foundem, 
was effectively "disappeared" from the Internet in this way.

Another way that Google exploits its control is through preferential 
placement. With the introduction in 2007 of what it calls "universal 
search," Google began promoting its own services at or near the top of 
its search results, bypassing the algorithms it uses to rank the 
services of others. Google now favors its own price-comparison results 
for product queries, its own map results for geographic queries, its own 
news results for topical queries, and its own YouTube results for video 
queries. And Google's stated plans for universal search make it clear 
that this is only the beginning.

Because of its domination of the global search market and ability to 
penalize competitors while placing its own services at the top of its 
search results, Google has a virtually unassailable competitive 
advantage. And Google can deploy this advantage well beyond the confines 
of search to any service it chooses. Wherever it does so, incumbents are 
toppled, new entrants are suppressed and innovation is imperiled.

Google's treatment of Foundem stifled our growth and constrained the 
development of our innovative search technology. The preferential 
placement of Google Maps helped it unseat MapQuest from its position as 
America's leading online mapping service virtually overnight. The share 
price of TomTom, a maker of navigation systems, has fallen by some 40 
percent in the weeks since the announcement of Google's free 
turn-by-turn satellite navigation service. And RightMove, Britain's 
leading real-estate portal, lost 10 percent of its market value this 
month on the mere rumor that Google planned a real-estate search service 

Without search neutrality rules to constrain Google's competitive 
advantage, we may be heading toward a bleakly uniform world of Google 
Everything --- Google Travel, Google Finance, Google Insurance, Google 
Real Estate, Google Telecoms and, of course, Google Books.

Some will argue that Google is itself so innovative that we needn't 
worry. But the company isn't as innovative as it is regularly given 
credit for. Google Maps, Google Earth, Google Groups, Google Docs, 
Google Analytics, Android and many other Google products are all based 
on technology that Google has acquired rather than invented.

Even AdWords and AdSense, the phenomenally efficient economic engines 
behind Google's meteoric success, are essentially borrowed inventions: 
Google acquired AdSense by purchasing Applied Semantics in 2003; and 
AdWords, though developed by Google, is used under license from its 
inventors, Overture.

Google was quick to recognize the threat to openness and innovation 
posed by the market power of Internet service providers, and has long 
been a leading proponent of net neutrality. But it now faces a difficult 
choice. Will it embrace search neutrality as the logical extension to 
net neutrality that truly protects equal access to the Internet? Or will 
it try to argue that discriminatory market power is somehow dangerous in 
the hands of a cable or telecommunications company but harmless in the 
hands of an overwhelmingly dominant search engine?

The F.C.C. is now inviting public comment on its proposed network 
neutrality rules, so there is still time to persuade the commission to 
expand the scope of the regulations. In particular, it should ensure 
that the principles of transparency and nondiscrimination apply to 
search engines as well as to service providers. The alternative is an 
Internet in which innovation can be squashed at will by an all-powerful 
search engine.

/Adam Raff is a co-founder of Foundem, an Internet technology firm./

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