The conduit theory’s natural enemy is the editor theory, which says
that making distinctions among web-pages is an act of judicious discretion
rather than dangerous discrimination.
The editors of Communications make
countless decisions about which developments in computing are worth
covering, which articles are most informative, and where to put them in
the magazine. These decisions are not
“right” or “wrong”; they simply reflect
the judgment of its editorial board
and staff. Google sees itself the same
way. True, Google’s editorial cycle is
measured in milliseconds rather than
in months. But when its search quality team meets to discuss algorithmic
tweaks, it resembles a newspaper staff
debating which stories to put on the
front page of the metro section. And,
continues the argument, just like the
government cannot tell the New York
Times to spike an unflattering story
about Guantanamo Bay, it cannot tell
Google which search results to show.
Finally, one could view Google as an
advisor, helping users find what they
are looking for. If so, the best search en-
gines. 6 Both regulators left untouched
the core practice responsible for so
much criticism: top-ranked placement
for Google’s own news, flight informa-
tion, and local results.
Did the authorities shirk their responsibilities to rein in an unruly
titan? Or did they show admirable
restraint in refusing the gum up the
gears of an innovative technology? It is
impossible to answer these and other
policy questions about Google without
some theory of what search engines are
good for and what society ought to expect of them.
Fortunately, we have such a theory—
or rather, we have three such theories.
Some observers have compared Google
to a traditional telecommunications
conduit like a radio station. 2 Some have
compared it to an editor deciding what
stories to put in a magazine. 8 And some
have compared it to an advisor, like the
concierge in a hotel who answers questions about local attractions. 7 Each
theory offers its own insights.
Calling search engines conduits
emphasizes that they have become
one of the new bottlenecks on the
Internet. If Le Snoot’s ISP decides to
unplug its connection, no one will be
able to reach lesnoot.com. The same
will be true if the DNS records for le-
snoot.com are deleted, or if search
engines drop lesnoot.com from their
indexes. And so, if the parallel holds,
just as the Bell telephone network was
regulated to ensure nondiscriminato-
ry access for everyone, search engines
should be too.
When people talk about “search
neutrality”—by analogy to “network
neutrality”—they are making an argument for treating Google as a conduit.
Of course, Google could not simply
rank all websites identically, because
only one result can be first, but it
ought to treat them all fairly. The opposite of a “neutral” search engine is
a “biased” search engine; rather than
listing websites in the order they deserve to be ranked, it injects its own
discriminatory distortions. The claim
that Google is doing something wrong
when it puts its own flight search results higher on the page than Expedia’s is a claim that Google should be
acting as a neutral conduit but is not.