NYT: Time to regulate Google searches

When Thomas Friedman used his New York Times column to sing the praises of Chinese authoritarianism, some wondered how the editors allowed Friedman to wander so far out of the mainstream.   Today’s house editorial on the dangers of Google search results answers the question.  Rather than just endorsing the use of competing search engines, the Times editorial staff uses its dislike of the results Google produces to argue that government needs to regulate Google’s output — an apparent endorsement of China’s policy:

When Google was a pure search engine, it was easy to appear agnostic about search results, with no reason to play favorites with one Web site or another. But as Google has branched out into online services from maps and videos to comparison shopping, it has acquired pecuniary incentives to favor its own over rivals.

Google argues that its behavior is kept in check by competitors like Yahoo or Bing. But Google has become the default search engine for many Internet users. Competitors are a click away, but a case is building for some sort of oversight of the gatekeeper of the Internet.

In the past few months, Google has come under investigation by antitrust regulators in Europe. Rivals have accused Google of placing the Web sites of affiliates like Google Maps or YouTube at the top of Internet searches and relegating competitors to obscurity down the list. In the United States, Google said it expects antitrust regulators to scrutinize its $700 million purchase of the flight information software firm ITA, with which it plans to enter the online travel search market occupied by Expedia, Orbitz, Bing and others.

The accusations in Europe may or may not have merit. Google says it only tweaks its algorithm to improve its searches. Some Web sites that have accused Google of unfair placing are merely collections of links with next to no original content of their own, precisely the kind of sites that Google’s search algorithm screens out to better answer queries. Antitrust regulators in the United States could well let Google buy ITA because it does not now provide online travel services.

Still, the potential impact of Google’s algorithm on the Internet economy is such that it is worth exploring ways to ensure that the editorial policy guiding Google’s tweaks is solely intended to improve the quality of the results and not to help Google’s other businesses.

It is?  Why?  Because Google built a brand that it has expanded into a business empire?  I have my issues with Google, but it’s absurd to argue that Google has some sort of public-utility requirement to treat competitors equally with itself.  If people don’t like the search results from Google, they can use Bing, Yahoo, Altavista, Jeeves, or any number of other competitors.

Having Google produce search results that favor Google’s other businesses is exactly as shocking as having a Sears clerk recommend Craftsman tools, and as innocuous as well.  (Or me promoting Townhall Magazine, for that matter.)  Don’t like the recommendation?  Go to Home Depot or Lowes instead.  What’s so difficult about choice that escapes the Times’ editors?

Besides, what comes after government regulation based on commerce?  Perhaps demands that Google “balance” its algorithms for political correctness, too.  In the case of the NYT, once the regulatory camel’s nose has gotten in the Internet tent, they may start arguing that Google adjust its algorithms to favor newspapers over blogs, too — perhaps as part of a newspaper bailout plan.  Once government intrusion starts, the sky’s the limit.

We don’t need government-approved search engine algorithms or results.  If the Times doesn’t like what it gets from Google, let them search somewhere else — or conduct their searches from China to see how government-approved Internet looks.