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A few Qs on the Master Switch

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4 Responses

  1. Teddy Microphone says:

    I came to the same conflict regarding patents. The pharmaceutical industry is a great example of the patents in action. On the one hand the money patents grant companies provides incentives for innovations in the field of medicine to continue, but on the other hand they’ve also created evil empires, such as the pharmaceutical industry. Patents aren’t per se bad, but the laws guiding them definitely need to be changed much like the America bail system: http://lawblog.legalmatch.com/2011/02/07/americas-bail-system-needs-to-be-reformed/

  2. Paul Ohm says:

    Great list, JZ. I think I’d tease the Advertising/Privacy story into (at least) two different points:

    1. The one you raise: should the government advance policies that hurt the “free web” (which of course isn’t free) in the name of privacy?

    2. Should our enthusiasm for Google’s role in the recent history of innovation be tempered by how the business model depends on users putting their privacy at risk in new, opaque, and underappreciated ways?

  3. Frank Pasquale says:

    This is a great set of questions. Let me just build on JZ’s point on search neutrality and Ohm on Google-opacity:

    I am very cautious about the term “search neutrality.” I did try to draw parallels between broadband non-discrimination and search non-discrimination in this article:
    http://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=1134159

    But virtually every time the term “search neutrality” comes up at cyberlaw conferences, people tend to want to end the argument by saying “there is no one best way to order search results—editorial discretion is built into the process of ranking sites.” To search neutrality’s critics, a neutral search engine would have to perform the (impossible) task of ranking every site according to some Platonic ideal of merit.

    On my account of neutrality, a neutral search engine must merely *avoid* certain suspect behaviors, including:

    1) Stealth marketing (secretly taking cash or other consideration in exchange for elevating the profile of sites in organic search results)

    2) De-indexing without notice and explanation (removing legal, non-spam sites from the index after they have been included in the search engine’s corpus, and failing to give some explanation to the removed site as to why it was removed)

    I think my concept of neutrality is much closer to the way the term is normally used in political philosophy (where, say, a “neutral state” is one that does not favor any particular conception of the good, rather than one that accords exactly the right amount of respect to each conception of the good). Neutrality is a very broad term, and the obvious differences between the technical operation of physical infrastructure and search engines should not stop us from applying certain broad principles to each entity.

    I also believe that Google is only one of many intermediaries that use opaque search technology. Some entity should be able to audit the systems used by any dominant intermediary to find out if stealth marketing and de-indexing without notice is happening. I make that case in these articles:

    http://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=1762236
    http://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=1762766

    Looking ahead, I don’t actually think this disclosure remedy will do much to change consumer behavior. But it will at least allow future historians, academics, and policymakers to understand how our information environment was shaped.

    In the long term, we’ll probably need to have some publicly funded alternative to dominant internet intermediaries, just as we have a Postal Service to serve those who can’t afford FedEx, or Medicare to serve those who are too old or disabled to get reasonably priced private insurance, or arts subsidies to help forms of expression that the market will never underwrite. That’s my point in this piece:
    http://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=1762241

    Disclosure helps us understand how urgent the need is for an alternative.

  4. Tim WU says:

    Okay I’ll answer these questions soon.

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