Search Engine Regulation Debate in DC

Earlier this year, Google’s Search Quality / anti-spam executive Matt Cutts toured Washington and “explained that while search results are based on an computer algorithm for the most relevant results, engineers such as Cutts go into the search engine routinely to manually weed out spam and viruses.”   In resisting calls from the telecom and online travel industries to regulate Google or limit its power in some way, Cutts argued that “‘There is no barrier to entry, and with one click they can choose to go to another search engine’.”

Frank Pasquale recently reiterated his position that federal regulation is necessary in order to ensure two principles relating to “search neutrality”:

1) Stealth marketing (secretly taking cash or other consideration in exchange for elevating the profile of sites in organic search results)

2) De-indexing without notice and explanation (removing legal, non-spam sites from the index after they have been included in the search engine’s corpus, and failing to give some explanation to the removed site as to why it was removed)

On a page devoted to high quality sites that lost their former places on the first or second pages of results for specific searches, a Google employee explains that “as this is an algorithmic change we are unable to make manual exceptions, but in cases of high quality content we can pass the examples along to the engineers who will look at them as they work on future iterations and improvements to the algorithm.”

Frank argues that when a “scheming company starts ‘link farms’ to make its sites more visible, it should be punished,” but regulation should “require both conduits and content providers to disclose whether they are raising the profile of those who pay them.”  It is an interesting proposal, but regulation seems a long way off in a time when, as Frank explains, we barely have net neutrality.

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