A Call for “Search Neutrality”

Slashdot linked to this NYT op-ed by Adam Raff, who co-founded a startup that ran afoul of what he considers discriminatory practices at the hands of Google.

I am skeptical of Raff’s point, even taking the piece with a grain of salt. While Google does indeed have a healthy head start in terms of data and infrastructure, I don’t think barriers to competition in the search space are directly comparable to the telecommunications space. Because Google’s primary good, its search index, is purely digital, the marginal cost of production for a competitor falls rapidly towards zero. Not so if a new data carrier wants to enter the telecommunications space.

The sort of bundling deals he describes also would seem to fall more into the realm of antitrust remedies, rather than calling for principles of neutrality. Granted, the DoJ hasn’t had the best track record lately with busting up single dominant players in the technology space. All the same I’d rather see that happen, perhaps seeing some of the innovative technologies the search giant has acquired over the years spun back out than to increase barriers for new entrants looking to compete in the core space of search.

Let’s also be honest, part of why Google is so popular is because they do tweak their search results to improve perceived value. I totally credit Raff’s examples of Google going too far along those lines. Barring the antitrust action I mentioned, I think at most this should call for greater transparency, not neutrality. If Google, Bing and others had to sport a Shumer box sort of disclosure, in this case, I think that would be enough to inform consumers and, perhaps more critically, competitors who may also use that information to appeal more strongly to those Google’s practices have disillusioned, like Mr. Raff himself.

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