Forget EU's Toothless Vote To 'Break Up' Google; Be Worried About Nonsensical 'Unbiased Search' Proposal
from the that's-where-the-real-threat-is dept
As was widely expected after leaking out a few days earlier, last week the EU Parliament “voted” on its proposal to support the breakup of Google. And yet, that might not really be as important as a second part of the EU’s vote, concerning a bizarre and nonsensical requirement for “unbiased” search results. As discussed earlier, the headlined proposal for breaking up Google is both completely toothless and kind of stupid. On the toothless part, not only can the EU Parliament not actually do anything about this, if the EU Commission wanted to break up Google, it would need to go through a long and involved process, that would likely fail. As Vox notes:
For Google to actually get broken up, the European Commission would first need to take Google to court alleging violation of European competition laws. The EC would then have to win the case and convince the courts that a breakup was the appropriate remedy.
“I can’t believe that would happen,” [antitrust expert Mark] Patterson told me on Monday. “I don’t think there have been cases of anyone being broken up in years.”
Patterson says that “there’s never been a smoking gun” showing that Google has abused its dominance in the search or advertising markets to harm competitors
But still, here’s what the EU Parliament approved [pdf] by a 384 to 174 vote:
Notes that the online search market is of particular importance in ensuring competitive conditions within the digital single market, given the potential development of search engines into gatekeepers and the possibility they have of commercialising secondary exploitation of information obtained; calls, therefore, on the Commission to enforce EU competition rules decisively, based on input from all relevant stakeholders and taking into account the entire structure of the digital single market in order to ensure remedies that truly benefit consumers, internet users and online businesses; calls, furthermore, on the Commission to consider proposals aimed at unbundling search engines from other commercial services as one potential long-term means of achieving the aforementioned aims;
As for why this is stupid, the Economist has a rather good explanation:
Google is clearly dominant, then; but whether it abuses that dominance is another matter. It stands accused of favouring its own services in search results, making it hard for advertisers to manage campaigns across several online platforms, and presenting answers on some search pages directly rather than referring users to other websites. But its behaviour is not in the same class as Microsoft?s systematic campaign against the Netscape browser in the late 1990s: there are no e-mails talking about ?cutting off? competitors? ?air supply?. What?s more, some of the features that hurt Google?s competitors benefit its consumers. Giving people flight details, dictionary definitions or a map right away saves them time. And while advertisers often pay hefty rates for clicks, users get Google?s service for nothing?rather as plumbers and florists fork out to be listed in Yellow Pages which are given to readers gratis, and nightclubs charge men steep entry prices but let women in free.
Furthermore, the Economist points out that, not only does this move appear to be anti-consumer, but it’s also just blatantly protectionist for companies unwilling to innovate:
Instead of attacking successful American companies, Europe?s leaders should ask themselves why their continent has not produced a Google or a Facebook. Opening up the EU?s digital services market would do more to create one than protecting local incumbents.
But within the proposal, a few lines down, there was something that might be even more concerning, and more ridiculous, even if it generated fewer (actually, almost no) headlines. And it’s that, beyond “breaking up” search engines, the resolution also included this bit of nonsense, saying that search engines need to be “unbiased”:
Stresses that, when operating search engines for users, the search process and results should be unbiased in order to keep internet searches non-discriminatory, to ensure more competition and choice for users and consumers and to maintain the diversity of sources of information; notes, therefore, that indexation, evaluation, presentation and ranking by search engines must be unbiased and transparent; calls on the Commission to prevent any abuse in the marketing of interlinked services by search engine operators;
But what does that even mean? Search is inherently biased. That’s the point of search. You want the best results for what you’re searching for, and the job of the search engine is to rank results by what it thinks is the best. An “unbiased” search engine isn’t a search engine at all. It just returns stuff randomly.
What this really is, is a way for the EU to try to insert itself into being able to edit search results. They’re trying to insert themselves into the algorithm to determine which search results it thinks should be up top, rather than whatever the algorithms find. This is very worrisome — in part because it demonstrates how little the EU politicians who voted for this understand. Years ago, James Grimmelmann (no friend of Google — as he’s actively fought against Google on a number of issues), explained why this concept (sometimes called “search neutrality”) makes no sense at all, and actually sets up a conflicting set of requirements where the “ends and means don’t match.” He concludes that the very idea of unbiased search is “incoherent.” In fact, he notes that an attempt towards “unbiased search” almost certainly leads to not just worse results for users, but a more likely situation in which users get pushed to the kinds of sites policy makers think they’re going to demote.
Requiring search engines to behave ?neutrally? will not produce the desired goal of neutral search results. The web is a place where site owners compete fiercely, sometimes viciously, for viewers and users turn to intermediaries to defend them from the sometimes-abusive tactics of information providers. Taking the search engine out of the equation leaves users vulnerable to precisely the sorts of manipulation search neutrality aims to protect them from. Whether it ranks sites by popularity, by personalization, or even by the idiosyncratic whims of its operator, a search engine provides an alternative to the Hobbesian world of the unmediated Internet, in which the richest voices are the loudest, and the greatest authority on any subject is the spammer with the fastest server. Search neutrality is cynical about the Internet?but perhaps not cynical enough.
Meanwhile, the sole Pirate Party member of the European Parliament, Julia Reda, has a bit more detail about how this bogus claim of “unbiased search” is really just an attempt to prop up publishers who failed to innovate via so-called “ancillary rights,” like the attempt to force Google to pay newspaper publishers for sending them traffic. As Reda notes:
Here, it is demanded that search algorithms and results should be impartial to keep internet searches ?nondiscrimatory? and to ?secure competition and freedom of choice for users and consumers?. Consequently, indexing, weighting, display and ordering of search engines should be impartial and transparent.
This wording is explosive. I am led to suspect that its aim is to prepare a European ancillary copyright for press publishers. The attempt to cross-finance big publishers through Google most recently spectacularly backfired in Germany. Is this resolution an attempt to create the puzzle piece that had been missing in Germany?
In October, G?nther Oettinger, the EU Commissioner for the Digital Economy and Society, provoked a debate on an EU-wide ancillary copyright law for press publishers before even taking office. Not a month later, the next move is made in that direction ? this time in the parliament.
As you may recall, when German publishers demanded payments for the traffic, Google removed their snippets, and the publishers claimed it was “blackmail.” As Reda notes, the whole “neutrality” or “unbiased” language in the resolution suggests a plan in which Google would be forced to (1) continue providing the snippets and traffic and then, later, (2) pay the publishers for sending them the traffic. In short, the idea is to force Google to “violate” the (made up) rights of publishers in order to give them a way to force Google to give them money.
Reda, along with Michel Reimon, put forth amendments that would block this possible interpretation of the resolution… and had those amendments rejected.
It’s clear that Europe, for whatever reason, has decided to go to war against American internet companies, with Google being the main target. As we noted last week, it’s not clear what the reasons are other than that Google is big and American. It’s perfectly reasonable to be concerned about potential abuse, and to vigilantly watch to make sure no such abuse occurs, but that’s not what’s happening here. It appears that these moves are just designed to punish not only Google, but the very users of the service in Europe, pressuring the company to deliver a lesser product… just to benefit a few companies and industries that have failed to innovate.
It is difficult to see how such an effort could possibly be good for the people of Europe.