Regulating Search? Call for a Second Look


Here is my second position paper (find the first one here) in preparation of the upcoming Regulating Search? conference at ISP Yale. It provides a rough arc of a paper I will write together with my friend and colleague Ivan Reidel. The Yale conference on search has led to great discussions on this side of the Atlantic. Thanks to the FIR team, esp. Herbert Burkert and James Thurman, Mike McGuire, and to Sacha Wunsch-Vincent for continuing debate.

Regulating Search? Call for a Second Look

1. The use of search engines has become almost as important as email as a primary online activity on any given day, according to a recent PEW survey. According to an another survey, 87% of search engine users state that they have successful search experiences most of the time, while 68% of users say that search engines are a fair and unbiased source of information. This data combined with the fact that the Internet, among very experienced users, ranks even higher than TV, radio and newspapers as an important source of information, illustrates the enormous importance of search engines from a demand-side perspective, both in terms of actual information practices as well as with regard to users’ psychological acceptance.

2. The data also suggests that the transition from an analog/offline to a digital/online information environment has been accompanied by the emergence of new intermediaries. While traditional intermediaries between senders and receivers of information—most of them related to the production and dissemination of information (e.g. editorial boards, TV production centers, etc.)—have diminished, new ones such as search engines have entered the arena. Arguably, search engines have become the primary gatekeepers in the digitally networked environment. In fact, they can effectively control access to information by deciding about the listing of any given website in search results. But search engines not only shape the flow of digital information by controlling access; rather, search engines at least indirectly engage in the construction of the messages or meaning by shaping the categories and concepts users’ use to search the Internet. In other words, search engines have the power to influence agenda setting.

3. The power of search engines in the digitally networked environment with corresponding misuse scenarios is likely to increasingly attract policy- and lawmakers attention. However, it is important to note that search engines are not unregulated under the current regime. Markets for search engines regulate their behavior, although the regulatory effects of competition might be relatively weak because the search engine market is rather concentrated and centralized; a recent global user survey suggests that Google’s global usage share has reached 57.2%. In addition, not all search engines use their own technology. Instead, they rely on other search providers for listings. However, search engines are also regulated by existing law and regulations, including consumer protection laws, copyright law, unfair competition laws, and—at the intersection of market-based regulation and law-based regulation—antitrust law or (in the European terminology) competition law.

4. Against this backdrop, the initial question for policymakers then must concern the extent to which existing laws and regulations may feasibly address potential regulatory problems that emerge from search engines in the online environment. Only where existing legislation and regulation fails due to inadequacy, enforcement issues, or the like, the question of new, specific and narrowly tailored regulation should be considered. In order to analyze existing laws and regulation with regard to their ability to manage problems associated with search engines, one might be well-advised to take a case-by-case approach, looking at each concrete problem or emerging regulatory issue (“scenario”) on the one hand and discussion relevant to incumbent legal/regulatory mechanisms aimed at addressing conflicts of that sort on the other hand.

5. Antitrust law might serve as an illustration of such an approach. While the case law on unilateral refusals to deal is still one of the most problematic and contested areas in current antritrust analysis, the emergence of litigation applying this analytical framework to search engines seems very likely. Although most firms’ unilateral refusals to deal with other firms are generally regarded as legal, a firm’s refusal to deal with competitors can give rise to anti-trust liability if such firm possesses monopoly power and the refusal is part of a scheme designed to maintain or achieve further monopoly power. In the past, successful competitors like Aspen Skiing Co. and more recently Microsoft have been forced to collaborate with competitors and punished for actions that smaller companies could have probably gotten away with. In this sense, search engines might be the next arena where antitrust laws with regard to unilateral refusals to deal are tested. In addition to the scenario just described, the question arises as to whether search engines could be held liable for refusal to include particular businesses in their listings. Where a market giant such as Google has a “don’t be evil” policy and declines from featuring certain sites in its PageRank results because it deems these sites to be “evil,” there is an issue of whether Google is essentially shutting that site provider out of the online market through the exercise of its own position in the market for information. Likewise, the refusal to include certain books in the Google Print project would present troubling censorship-like issues. It is also important to note that Google’s editorial discretion with regard to its PageRank results was deemed to be protected by the First Amendment in the SearchKing case.

6. In conclusion, this paper suggests a cautious approach to rapid legislation and regulation of search engines. It is one of the lessons learned that one should not overestimate the need for new law to deal with apparently new phenomena emerging from new technologies. Rather, policy- and lawmakers would be well-advised to carefully evaluate the extent to which general and existing laws may address regulatory problems related to search and which issues exactly call for additional, specific legislation.

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