Search Engines Owed Same Free Speech Protections As CNN, Claims Google Report

    May 10, 2012

In a new report commissioned by Google that examines the scope of free speech that should be permitted to search engines, UCLA law professor Eugene Volokh, who authored the report, says that search engines should be regarded as media companies, akin to how CNN and the New York Times are media companies. In that respect, the report asserts that search engines like Google and Bing have a protected right to pick and choose what appears in their search rankings.

Wait, what – Google’s claiming the right to design search results as it sees fit? Ruh-roh, nobody tell Rick Santorum that news.

paidContent explains Volokh’s report as such:

Search engine results are a form of opinion, says the report, in which companies offer information they think is most relevant to users.

In practice, this would mean Google has the right to punt sites like Yelp, which has complained that Google is a monopolist, to the search equivalent of Siberia if it decided that was best for users (Yelp now comes up second in a search for “restaurant review”).

The report goes on to relate cases in which media companies were sued for excluding access to information or producing inaccurate information. One involved a cable company unsuccessfully arguing that excluding certain channels was an exercise of the company’s free speech right – an example, Volokh argues, that does not mirror the situation with search engines.

According to paidContent, Google commissioned the report because it feels that “these issues were worth exploring in more depth by a noted First Amendment scholar.”

I’m sure Google finds such inspections to be of utmost concerning the company seems to have a regular appointment to butt up against the Federal Trade Commission with regard to how search results are produced to Google users. Last year, the FTC launched an investigation to find out whether Google “grants preferential placement on its website to its own products” that resulted in an antitrust hearing with the Senate Committee on the Judiciary Subcommittee on Antitrust. It was at this hearing, as paidContent mentioned above, that Yelp delivered a testimony claiming that Google was engaging in anticompetitive business practices.

The way Google conjures search results drew more criticism earlier this year when the Electronic Privacy Information Center contemplated filing a complaint with the FTC when Google announced the “Search Plus Your World” feature.

With the completion of this report from a noted free speech legal scholar, Google appears to be circling the wagons around its right to manipulate search results . The debate over whether the government should be regulating Google’s search results has yawned throughout the year thus far, and, of course, Google believes it can reserve the right to alter search results.

In the end, Google maintains that if consumers aren’t happy with the search results, they can always use a competing search engine. However, if searches including only Google-approved results throttle competing search engines and therefore leave consumers with little to no choice other than to use Google, the company could face an antitrust lawsuit. The Justice Department would have to suspect that, somehow, Google’s search manipulation was not in the best interest for consumers before any lawsuit could be filed.

In an interview with The Hill, Volokh echoed Google’s argument, saying nobody was obligated to use Google if they don’t like the search results. “What can be said about Google can be said about newspapers, encyclopedias and a wide range of information sources,” he said.

So what do you think, should this issue fall under the free speech category or is it more of an antitrust issue? Do you think Google should be extended the same protections for free speech the way New York Times or CNN are afforded? Let us know what you think.