Search Neutrality

A principle that search engines should have no editorial policies, excepting their preferences for comprehensiveness, impartiality, and relevance.

Google Has Picked an Answer for You—Too Bad It’s Often Wrong

Google became the world’s go-to source of information by ranking billions of links from millions of sources. Now, for many queries, the company is presenting itself as the authority on truth by promoting a single search result as the answer. The promoted answers, called featured snippets, are outlined in boxes above other results and presented in larger type, often with images. Google’s voice assistant sometimes reads them aloud.

Google Limits Access to Airfare Data, Risking Antitrust Concerns

In 2010, when Google paid $700 million to acquire airline-data company ITA Software, the Department of Justice scrutinized the deal for antitrust issues. The deal was ultimately approved, but one condition of the approval required Google to allow others to access the data for five years. Now, seven years later, Google is cutting off access to ITA data for some companies that rely on it. This week Google announced it would cancel QPX Express, an airline-data service it has offered to small businesses and startups since 2014.

Using “public interest algorithms” to tackle the problems created by social media algorithms

[Commentary] The ramifications of Russian exploitation of social media exceed its potential electoral impact. It even exceeds the involvement of the Russians. The broader ramifications are how social media algorithms divide us, how those divisions can be exploited, and whether there are solutions. By fracturing society into small groups, the internet has become the antithesis of the community necessary for democratic processes to succeed. This is bigger than the current discussion of political advertising rules for the internet.

It’s time to end the secrecy and opacity of social media

[Commentary] By the time you finish reading this article, Facebook, YouTube and Twitter will have made billions of decisions about what you and hundreds of millions of others will see next. Each time you log into a social media platform, its algorithms — sophisticated mathematical models designed by a few thousand engineers in Northern California — decide what information you should consume.

Tech Executives Testify on Capitol Hill About Russian Election Interference

Facebook, Google and Twitter arrived on Capitol Hill for two days of marathon hearings that started on Oct 31 with the Senate Judiciary subcommittee on crime and terrorism. Top executives for the social media giants are being grilled by lawmakers investigating Russia’s meddling in the 2016 election, including how the online platforms were used to spread misinformation and propaganda. Ahead of the hearings, all three companies announced on Oct 30 that the number of Russian-linked accounts on their sites were higher than previously disclosed.

Chinese Internet Regulators Target Social Media Use

Instant-messaging apps, video streaming and other new content platforms in China will face closer scrutiny under new rules issued by the country’s internet regulators. In a statement Oct 30, the Cyberspace Administration of China said messaging apps and other new forms of information dissemination can be used to engage in illegal behavior.

‘They were just following me and giving me sugar’: Results from focus groups in four US cities

As more and more people get at least some of their news from social platforms, this study showcases perspectives on what the increasingly distributed environment looks like in day-to-day media lives. Drawing from thirteen focus groups conducted in four cities across the United States, we sample voices of residents who reflect on their news habits, the influence of algorithms, local news, brands, privacy concerns, and what all this means for journalistic business models.

While our overall study complicates any notion of a singular audience with singular wants, it offered insights from varied perspectives that may be of value for both publishers and platforms:

  • Publishers and platforms interested in rebuilding and maintaining relationships of trust with audiences should invest in media literacy that includes a) skills for verifying brands, b) algorithm literacy, and c) privacy literacy. Effectively tackling these areas will require a shift in attitude and strategy for platform companies—reluctant companies should note the risk of losing users alienated by the opacity of their operations. However, it must be noted that algorithmic transparency is required before algorithmic literacy can be achieved.
  • Platforms should note that strategies to prolong engagement by exposing users to perspectives only with which they agree may backfire as some people turn away from platforms due to perceived echo chambers.
  • Additional research is needed to monitor existing efforts to increase the visibility of local news on social platforms, though there is likely a need for platform companies to do more in addressing this critical element of the news ecosystem.
  • Platforms and other stakeholders committed to verification should take note of public skepticism regarding quick fixes to the challenge of fake news and the nuance required to not only address “imposter content” and “fabricated content,” but also the absence or presence of partisan content.
  • Publishers should approach business models such as native advertising and sponsored links with caution given their potential to jeopardize relationships of trust with readers. However, additional research and a dedicated study of audience attitudes toward journalistic business models would be valuable.

Rep Ellison Seeks Google Info From FTC

Rep Keith Ellison (D-MN) has asked Federal Trade Commission Chairman Maureen Ohlhausen for documentation of its long-running antitrust investigation of Google, which was closed in 2013 with no finding of antitrust violations. In 2013, the FTC concluded: "Google’s display of its own content could plausibly be viewed as an improvement in the overall quality of Google’s search product. Similarly, we have not found sufficient evidence that Google manipulates its search algorithms to unfairly disadvantage vertical websites that compete with Google-owned vertical properties."

That came despite complaints to Congress from some small online businesses that Google was disfavoring them in search. Rep Ellison points out that Google did volunteer to change some business practices in the wake of the investigation. "Given the impact Google has on small businesses, the flow of information, and that Google controls an outsize portion of the market for online search and online advertising, the public has a right to know what the Federal Trade Commission found in its investigation into Google," Ellison said in a letter to Ohlhausen.

Google Offers to Auction Off Shopping Ad Spaces to Rivals in Response to EU

Apparently, Alphabet’s Google has proposed overhauling its shopping search results so that rivals can bid for space to display products for sale, as part of the company's efforts to comply with the European Union’s antitrust order. Under the proposal, Google would bid against rivals to display products for sale in the space above its general search results, apparently. Google would set itself a price cap that it wouldn’t be able to bid above, but competitors could do so if they wished. Rival shopping sites have hit back, saying an auction-based remedy wouldn’t assuage the EU regulator’s demands that the company treat its competitors’ offerings and its own shopping service equally.

The Anit-Monopoly Case Against Google

An interview with Barry Lynn, former New America staffer who was let go, reportedly at the request of Alphabet's executive chairman Eric Schmidt.

Asked, "Why is it so important to talk about monopoly power, particularly regarding tech companies?" Lynn said, "It’s important to talk about monopoly power in general because monopolies are a threat to our democracy and to our basic liberties and to our communities. Monopolization, this concentration of wealth and power, is a threat to everything that is America — everything we established America to ensure. So Open Markets is built to fight the environment of law and regulation that currently promotes unrestrained monopoly. America today has a monopoly problem. We’re seeing basically a second wave of consolidation and monopolization because of the digital revolution. These companies are just as bad as Newscorp or Walmart or Citibank was in 2005. Google, Facebook, and Amazon: the danger they pose is on a vastly different level."