Google Search Better Without Government Managing it as a Utility
The problems facing foreign news media may be substantial. But turning a search service, even just the most popular, Google, into a utility closely regulated by a government requiring algorithm transparency and limiting linking, would harm us users.
Australia and France have moved in that direction. Both want to limit links and snippets. Australia wants to require that Google share its algorithm, at least changes, with website owners, when website owners are exactly who tend to break the algorithms for their self-benefit by misleading users, forcing Google to play a cat-and-mouse game to stay ahead and serve its users. Google does a better job than any other search engine, in my opinion, partly through the quality of its algorithm and its secrecy. Google has opinions; it’s allowed to, under U.S. law. French, European Union, and Australian law likely differ from U.S. law, including the First Amendment, and that’s those nations’ right, but our system may allow more access to knowledge and more robust discussion on the way to updating our conclusions, our discoveries and inventions, and our political and economic achievements.
Links: News story in Ars Technica on Australia and France: https://arstechnica.com/tech-policy/2021/01/google-threatens-to-shut-down-australian-search-over-link-tax-proposal/. News story in The Verge on Australia: https://www.theverge.com/2021/1/21/22243468/google-threatens-to-remove-its-search-engine-from-australia-if-new-law-goes-into-effect. Official text of the Australian legislative bill is via https://www.aph.gov.au/Parliamentary_Business/Bills_Legislation/Bills_Search_Results/Result?bId=r6652.
Is Google manipulating its search results to favor advertisers? Hardly, as far as I know, but let’s say I’m wrong. (There’s a good argument that ads influence clicks on adjacent organic listings for the same party, the increase in organic clicks leading to upranking of the organic listings, increasing clicks again. But even if Google is brazenly favoring advertisers outright, that would not matter for this issue.) Google has a First Amendment right to form and communicate its own opinion as to which websites are the best in response to your interest. That’s within its rights of free speech and free press. Even all of us hating their opinion is not a ground for silencing it. The Constitution protects odious speech, awful speech, not just popular speech, because popular speech would hardly need protection, anyway. Whatever we think of Google’s bigness and its thoughts, Google is free to like as it wishes.
Let’s say Google deliberately wants to push bad opinions of its own, even just to grab more profit at our expense. We experience bad opinions from all kinds of sources. Google would be just one more. We would do with Google what we do with all other bad sources: We’d go to better sources.
We can walk away. If Google’s results are too heavily shaped by ads, and someone else has a better system, people will migrate, albeit slowly at first, but leave they will. That works in both directions. For example, Bing, despite being backed by a skillful, wealthy, and competitive business, has a far smaller search market share than does Google. Lots of big companies have folded and been forgotten because newer companies overtook them. News media often depend on advertising; they strike a balance to keep their credibility for the news they publish. That adds credibility to ads, too, so some advertisers also benefit, and they pay for the benefit. If a nation somewhere in the world has only a single newspaper for the whole nation, that’s not our way, so, while some news media have gaps because of commercial conflicts of interest, competitors can fill in the gaps. This is true of most kinds of businesses as well. One airline does not fly to Seattle, but another does.
For a search engine, it’s not prohibitively hard for competitors to enter the fray, and some have. They can build their own databases of websites, their own search algorithms, and their own hardware facilities for servers. They can try searching in Google and choose how to compete. For that, they don’t need licenses from anyone for search. They can accept whatever amount of influence from advertising they like, including none, even opposing what advertisers like. An anti-ad rebel might have to charge fees for searches, but if people are willing to pay and that gives better results, go for it. There was even an open-source Web search engine with a fully-visible algorithm, but if it still exists I hardly ever hear of it, so it must get very few users, so evidently most people like Google’s secret sauce better. Competing is not easy, but the prospect is open.
However, some people don’t want to wait for competition and they still want Google itself to change. Some have businesses with websites that rank poorly and then get few visitors, and some are bloggers who want more readers of their not-very-interesting thoughts. We can’t have skyward of a hundred million active websites without some small percentage getting unfairly treated, and some complaints likely are legitimate. That occurs everywhere in life; for example, some word-of-mouth drives customers away and so do some TV ads and sometimes a supplier ships the wrong product and some customers skip town without paying their bills. These are challenges almost any business owner has to face sooner or later. If you have a website that does poorly in a search service, you simply take the challenge in stride and do the best you can. Free advice is online for website owners on how to improve one’s search position from Google, Bing, and independent sources; and consultants, good and bad, will help in person if paid.
Yet, some website owners want more. It’s tempting to ask for help from someone big. The government is big. It’s tempting to ask the government to swing its weight around for you. Sometimes, that’s a good idea. But, in this case, maybe that’s a bad idea, since some of the solutions being publicly discussed appear to center on treating Google as a utility.
Utilities are more closely regulated by governments, and tend to be reliable and predictable, and customers like that. The utility model is good for some types of business. It’s good for necessities with expensive infrastructure and for which a near-monopoly model provides an advantage preferred by the public. Electricity is an example: Electricity is delivered through cables that, in cities, go under public streets. Maintenance and growth occasionally require ripping up some streets and detouring traffic. So, if multiple competitors all have underground cables, then, statistically, streets will be torn open more often and traffic will be disrupted more often, so people get to work later or have less time at home, which will produce more complaints from politicians’ constituents. A typical solution is a monopoly on physical cabling under public streets. That became a monopoly on selling electric power. Even that has been narrowed down, so that you may be able to buy kilowatt-hours of power from less-regulated financial intermediaries who get commitments to deliver power from heavily-regulated utilities, thereby increasing space for competition by narrowing the subject of heavy regulation.
In the days before cell phones being everywhere, when nearly every phone was still on a landline with copper wires, which are costly to bury under streets, AT&T was a successful telephone company and extensively regulated. A telephone utility specialized in being reliable. Customers demanded reliability and reliability was what AT&T prioritized: If you picked up a phone, you would get a dial tone. You could count on it. If you called someone and you heard a ringing in your ear, you knew the other person’s phone was ringing. You could count on that. For years, to have a silent light instead of a bell or to have an answering machine at all, you needed a special exemption, because the phone company wanted you to hear the phone and answer it and maybe stay on the line a while and pay the company. Reliability contributed to habits that were also good for business. But, when AT&T came out with desktop computers, most people didn’t want them, because people expected computers to be ahead of other computers, and that required leading with innovation, which you wouldn’t expect from a company specializing in being Old Reliable. AT&T computers likely were not heavily regulated by the government, but to most people what made AT&T familiar was not good for computers. Instead, people bought their innovative computers from less-regulated companies.
On the other hand, most necessities are not treated like utilities. Food stores are under health regulation but still have plenty of room for competitive innovation, which they practice (for better and worse). Food brands and items disappear because they don’t sell well. Most prices are not regulated by governments and stores try out sales to see if we’ll buy more. The milder regulations are enough to keep us safe from food poisoning. Maybe we eat too much of the wrong stuff and take a chance on getting diabetes later, but we object to a soda ban now. We like to keep our choices.
Some personal financial services have substantial regulation but not quite utility-level. Banking and insurance are examples; we want to know that if we have a catastrophe and qualify under the insurance we paid a premium for, we’ll be paid our benefits, full and fast. States look at insurance companies’ books and can take away a license. Banks get closed and other banks see this and are careful.
That leaves most products as not overseen as utilities. Even new kinds of products generally start out with less regulation. That’s our culture. People like it that way. Precisely because of that, treating search engines, or just Google’s, as utilities would not invoke a slippery slope. Most types of institutions will successfully resist being turned into utilities, and they’d succeed at resisting because the non-utility model works well for most consumers. But the chatter is about Google.
The Google-as-utility model has some public appeal because of how we use Google. We consider it reliable. It is reliable. Meanwhile, we don’t see much of their innovation. The system just works and we’re happy with that. There could be utility-type regulation of the search service without the public even noticing, at least initially. Regulation, heavy or not, that left us users alone would not be objected to by the users. The public would be okay with that.
But tightly-regulated utilities tend not to be innovative. That slows the flow of improvements. Most people like the results of innovation and like making their own choices from whatever is the best at the moment. So, treating the Google search service as a utility may not stay as popular as some wish. It would likely harm us through gradual degradation of the results we get, because enough website owners will keep trying to game Google’s system and Google won’t be allowed to keep ahead fast enough. Google won’t be able to remedy problems that most of us would agree need fixing and for which its engineers have developed solutions. It won’t be able to adapt its algorithm to a changing environment until a government regulator has approved each adaptation, or at least decided not to reject it.
The approval process may include soliciting public input before approval is possible. With that step, an approval may be delayed and influenced by competitors’ desires, just as U.S. Postal Service postage rates, regulated by a separate Federal agency, are influenced by the rates charged by FedEx and United Parcel Service. For searches, that influence won’t be a market force but a government opinion on how search results should be ranked. Large businesses will lobby government for dominance in search results, and many will likely get it, and for near-invisibility of critical sites, and many will likely get that, too. Administrative adjudication will often follow. This may include subpoenas for evidence and a hearing, likely requiring that Google make public much of its algorithm for competitors to copy, nice for users at first but likely to retard development by all search engines lest a feature become public. Each change will likely take weeks for the government to evaluate and approve. Quality of searches will lag.
If U.S. regulation is so tight that foreign companies start doing over the Internet what American companies cannot, that’s okay if the heavy regulations are important enough to us. But if we prefer what less-regulated foreign competitors offer, then maybe we’re voting with our fingers and we should relax the regulations or do without them.
Consider an inverse situation, that of U.S. companies offering to people in other nations what those nations do not allow domestically. Google serves, probably, users in most nations of the world. Google has local servers abroad, so some results get to foreign users faster, but Google can serve any nation in the world from California, just a little slower. (That’s high latency and it matters in places where Internet signals must travel farther. I’m in New York City and I reached a Mongolian domain for a Minnesotan organization with no noticeable delay. I don’t know if signals must go to Mongolia and back, but, if they do, the round trip between Ulaanbaatar and New York is roughly 12–13,000 miles.) If Google can’t serve a nation, it’s likely because that nation set up screening so locally-seen websites won’t offend the national government and so people there can’t reach some foreign websites. If there’s no border barrier, Google in California is competition for any search engine overseas, even Google’s own overseas websites. So, if an overseas Google is forbidden to provide full service in another nation, like if there’s censorship, unblocked users can visit the well-known google.com and get what the California servers offer. Restrictive national laws may be opportunities for competition from abroad.
If regulation in the U.S. applies only to Google, the likely rationale being that it’s the biggest, competitors will still be able to leapfrog ahead but may or may not invest in trying, fearful that if they become the leader they’ll probably come under the same heavy regulation that slows innovation. We users will lose out.
If government is to regulate Google’s search algorithm, then the argument against regulating all major and medium-sized search engines’ algorithms would soon fade. Shady website owners would game all of them. Reputable website owners, in order to compete against the shady ones, would soon do the same. Results of our searches would deteriorate in quality. We users would all be worse off.
It would also be easier, if Google becomes a utility, for foreign governments to treat Google’s results as a government-to-government matter for an agreement. (The Titanic is reportedly the subject of an agreement between two national governments, and Google is more important.) Several major websites, often social networks but also search services, support freedom, even insurgencies, in other nations. Those nations find it too hard to censor American websites, because often they’d also be censoring content the same nations want. And Cuba had its own Facebook-like website, but it probably wasn’t nearly as useful as Facebook itself and it’s apparently gone, effectively replaced by Facebook. So turning Google into a utility, especially if Facebook and other major platforms suffer similar futures, would reduce the U.S. contribution to overseas individual liberty, when liberty has generally been helpful to the world and its development. It’s remarkable how many foreign governments and institutions, including one organization engaged in asymmetrical war with the U.S., have publicly-visible accounts on U.S.-based social media websites. One friendly nation, Georgia, put a military account on a Google website because Google could defend it better from Russian cyberattacks than Georgia’s military could.
We hear that advertising affects search results and we get upset. We’re, or some of us are, annoyed at front-runner Google despite back-of-the-pack search engines like ask.com and info.com letting advertising wield far more influence on their results, but that’s precisely because Google is bigger and more popular. We don’t care about the puny search services, because hardly any of us uses them (I don’t). Ask.com was an early innovator when it was called AskJeeves.com and it allowed questions for searches, but Google came up with a similar feature. Then, ask.com didn’t have an advantage left and so their service no longer matters. Google is far better for searching, like by labeling ads so most users know an ad when they see it. And we should accept the presence of some advertising, even if we don’t click on it (and we usually don’t), because most of us wouldn’t care to pay monthly fees for searches. Someone has to pay for them or Google will find something else to do.
All this is true even without Google being perfect. I have a criticism of Google’s ranking. It’s that the best expertise may not get to the top of the results. But I wrote technical specifications to solve that for free. Now it’s up to website authors to choose and implement the specs and highlight the expertise they already recognize, theirs and others’. It’s work. But that’s a better solution than asking governments to spend government money to write search algorithms because someone imagines that the government would do it better than Google or Microsoft would or, for that matter, than Yahoo, Baidu, or Yandex would.
Suppose you scrutinize my solution and find it falls short. Come up with a better one. Ask Google et al. to come up with a better one. Go public with why you think there’s a problem in the first place (if you do) and convince your followers to take up the torch and do better. Encourage people to innovate and roll out their inventions. Do something about it. Do something.
Government does some things very well. However, inventing, discovering, opining, and spreading the word is often better done by private people and private institutions precisely because fewer people are looking over their shoulders. Let’s encourage them.
I’m still using Google. I’m still astonished at what I can get, and how much I get, in less than one second with a search that was nothing like the last search I ran. I don’t have to spend a few hours at a library when I can now do maybe 15 minutes of searching and reading to learn the same thing.