What to Do About Google?

By James Grimmelmann

Posted on September 5, 2013


I have a guest column, What to Do About Google? (here is a non-paywalled draft in the September issue of the Communications of the ACM. It’s a short and accessible version of my argument from Speech Engines about how best to think about Google and other search engines. Here are some excerpts:

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. Some have compared it to an editor deciding what stories to put in a magazine. And some have compared it to an advisor, like the concierge in a hotel who answers questions about local attractions. Each theory offers its own insights. …

But when it comes to crafting sensible law for search engines, our sympathies should lie with users. The Internet has made it easier to speak to world- wide audiences than ever before, but at the cost of massively increasing the cacophony confronting those audiences. Since users’ interests are as diverse as human thought, they need highly personalized help in picking through the treasures in the Internet’s vast but utterly disorganized storehouse. The search engine is the only technology known to humanity capable of solving this problem at Internet scale. …

Google is not the Eye of Sauron, finding all that is good on the Inter- net and corrupting it. Nor, despite its mission “to organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful,” is it humanity’s informational savior. Google is a company that provides an enormously significant online service. When that service raises serious legal questions, we should ask whether it is good for the users or bad for the users.

The preceding is re-published on TAP with permission by its author, Professor James Grimmelmann. “What to Do About Google?” was originally published August 27, 2013 on The Laboratorium. The Laboratorium publishes under the Creative Commons License.



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