August 13, 2007

Regulation Of Search Engines discussion - "Federal Search Commission?"

There's an interesting legal discussion concerning the paper "Federal Search Commission? Access, Fairness and Accountability in the Law of Search" by Frank Pasquale and Oren Bracha.

I find myself torn, as I'm very politically sympathetic to the issues raised by the authors. As they recognize, this is really about mass media and information gatekeeping in a democratic society. There's a whole genre of these types of paper. But they usually boil down to saying roughly the same basic things in a very elaborate way:

-1. An informed populace is important for a democratic society

0. The First Amendment forbids government regulation of political speech

1. These mass media institutions concentrate enormous political power in a few corporations, giving these businesses huge megaphones, without any effective reply by the citizenry

2. But the courts have ruled that under the First Amendment, at least for newspapers, that's just fine (e.g. the "Tornillo" case).

3. This institution is not like newspapers, because [fill in the blank].

The magic is in item #3, and sadly, I've yet to see one of these papers where I found the reasoning convincing there. The writer's problem (generically, not this paper in specific) is that they can't make it a general media analysis, since then they would be both on the wrong side of existing law, and would immediately lay themselves open to intense attack as censors. So they're forced to try to find some hairsplit, some key feature that they can claim gets them out from under that trap (myself, I think the intellectually consistent liberal solution is saying that corporations aren't persons, but that's a whole different topic).

Now, the above task isn't entirely impossible. For TV and radio, it's "spectrum scarcity" and "pervasiveness". Which supported the Fairness Doctrine, to counteract practical monopolization. However, that regulation has been gone for a long time, and any proposal to restore it brings instant oppositional targeting by professional propagandists. The only relevant TV/radio material regulation still in force - and even increased in some ways in modern times! - is prohibitions on sex and cursing (which tells you something ...).

But the authors' specific attempts to find a hairsplit for search engines (my paraphrase here) - secret algorithms, or overblown marketing claims, or Google-is-God perceptions, or defining it as not discussion among citizens - just seem to me to be playing to the discomfort that some liberal-arts types have with anything involving technology. If computer programs are covered by copyright (something that was not so evident years ago), then search engine ranking are "opinions". Arguments otherwise are easy to shoot down.

I'd suggest putting the advocacy energy into some sort of "Right Of Reply" argument - that might even be possible, though it's still very much bucking the trend.

By Seth Finkelstein | posted in google | on August 13, 2007 08:04 AM (Infothought permalink)
Seth Finkelstein's Infothought blog (Wikipedia, Google, censorware, and an inside view of net-politics) - Syndicate site (subscribe, RSS)

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Because of the fall of IP monopolies (copyright & patent), we are now beginning to debate IP itself, i.e. whether anyone should be permitted to deny the public access to their IP:

1) Corporations and individuals should have privacy.
2) Individuals should have privacy.
3) No-one should have privacy.

(Taking as read that the right to life trumps privacy).

I think 1 falls out of 2. Ipso facto, given privacy is a human right, corporations in comprising human beings are able and thus entitled to commercial secrets (although that doesn't mean they should automatically be able to prosecute employees for leaking them).

Of course, suspicion that Google is biased doesn't constitute evidence.

An obvious remedy would be for the state to purchase Google in order to obtain the IP to its search engine, but that would probably increase suspicion of bias.

It is then left to the people, to produce a collaborative and distributed search engine, using free software so that its bias is visible to all.

Posted by: Crosbie Fitch at August 13, 2007 10:34 AM

Oh, and on the subject of "the intellectually consistent liberal solution is saying that corporations aren't persons", I have just proposed such a solution! ;-)

ACACIA: A Corporation And Citizen Isolation Amendment

It's morphic resonance I tell you!

Posted by: Crosbie Fitch at August 13, 2007 10:40 AM