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Thomas Claburn
Thomas Claburn
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Regulating Google Search

The New York Times on Wednesday proposed that the government should regulate Google's search algorithm. It's such a baffling bad idea that it's hard to know where to start criticizing it.

The New York Times on Wednesday proposed that the government should regulate Google's search algorithm. It's such a baffling bad idea that it's hard to know where to start criticizing it.In part that's because so many others have laid into the Times for its ill-conceived suggestion. Perhaps the best argument against government-supervised search was offered by Search Engine Land's Danny Sullivan.

In a scathing satire, Sullivan suggests that the New York Times' editorial algorithm needs government oversight.

The parallels between the two proposals are spot-on and anyone on the New York Times' editorial board who has read Sullivan's riposte ought to recognize how silly Sullivan has made the Old Gray Lady look.

Google's VP of search and user experience also presented an effective rebuttal to Times' call for government-mandated neutral search.

"[T]he 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," Mayer wrote in a Financial Times counter-editorial. "What if a better answer for your search, say, on the World Cup or 'jaguar' were to appear on the Web tomorrow? Also, what if a new technology were to be developed as powerful as PageRank that transforms the way search engines work? Neutrality forcing standardized results removes the potential for innovation and turns search into a commodity."

Nick Saint, writing for the Business Insider, offers some strong counter-arguments too: Google does not have a search monopoly, there's no barrier to switching search engines, and regulators wouldn't be qualified to adjust Google's search algorithm.

But to me the most compelling reason to avoid regulated search is that it has already been tried.

Regulated search is what Google offered in China. While Chinese authorities didn't directly manipulate Google's algorithm, their censorship requirements accomplished the same thing.

Google wasn't happy with regulated search in China. And even the Chinese leadership is uncomfortable with the idea. Chinese authorities could require that all search engines in the country use a government-compiled index or government-approved algorithm. But they don't because they realize doing so would make China less competitive and would hinder foreign investment.

Strangely, The New York Times, supposed defender of free speech, sees no First Amendment problem with the government telling Google how to tune its search system.

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