You have to hand it to the New York Times: when they get something wrong, they surpass all expectations. This is the case of the extraordinary editorial that appeared last week, which proposes that the government regulate Google’s ranking algorithm. The reason? Google is now such a powerful force on the Internet that it is essential that it maintain editorial objectivity; otherwise, it could steer users to online properties that Google has an interest in rather than to third-party properties that objectively are more relevant to a user’s search. Thus a third-party video of an adorable mewing kitten may get a lower page rank than a similar video that appears on YouTube, which, of course, Google acquired some years back.
The Times piece is not without nuance (it acknowledges that regulators must be very, very careful), but it clearly insists on seeing the world in its own terms, and only in its own terms. Google must be objective and impartial; Google must operate as a public trust; Google must behave very much like the way the Times itself purports to behave. Even an unabashed admirer of the Times like myself must acknowledge that the world would be a dimmer place without rascals and fools, full-throated and often ill-informed opinions, and self-dealing organizations. In the world imagined by the Times, there would be no need for novels or movies because there would be no drama.
This is so pompous, it makes you want to pee in the punch.
The Times has triggered a vitriolic response to its editorial all over the Web, but none so entertaining as the Swiftian satire by Danny Sullivan, who is something of a celebrity in the tech world, where he has chronicled the evolution of search engines for many years. As Sullivan points out ironically, the Times would never stand for the kind of regulation that it proposes for Google even though the Times is in so many important respects a more dominant cultural force. One man’s monopoly is another man’s personal property.
What the Times fails to mention (besides being tone-deaf to spoofs on the order of Sullivan’s) is its own corporate interest in Google’s search algorithms. Whether Google is the #1 or the #2 source of traffic to the Times‘ own Web site (a large number of people go to the site directly or by following links from sites other than Google Web Search), the fact is that if Google decided not to play fair–to present biased search results in the news category–it would cost the already rickety Times Company a bundle. The Times‘ editorial, in other words, is in part a plea to protect its own business. So much for impartiality.
More fundamentally, though, the Times misses the essential point — Google has no obligation to be objective, no obligation to be an impartial arbiter of Web searches. Provided that Google does not mislead anyone, Google is free to point users wherever it wants. The fact that it does not do so (as far as I can determine) has to do with the company’s extraordinary business discipline, which puts brand management above everything else. People use Google because they trust it — and with all the personal information Google is collecting on all of us, by golly it better be trustworthy.
So, yes, let’s regulate Google — as we should all large companies — but not about this. Let’s be watchful about the company’s acquisitions in the search area, which could lead to diminished competition; let’s keep an eye on its cavalier attitude toward intellectual property (except for the IP it itself controls); but let’s not insist that the role of government is to make the world safe for the New York Times.