What, really, is Google’s search engine? On the one hand it could be seen as a conduit, harvesting and channelling information to users based on their search terms.
This is a position that Google has often taken when it needs to enjoy “safe harbour” protection. This protection, essentially, absolves information providers of liability for the actions of its consumers. Therefore, Google is not to blame if a user finds a recipe for a bomb through the search engine, or uses a Google service to upload material that violates copyright.
On the other hand, Google seems to now argue, it is also a publisher who enjoys all the protections that US law guarantees publishers, especially under free speech norms.
This week, The New York Times reported that Google had hired conservative blogger and law professor Eugene Volokh to publish a white paper that argues for Google search results to be considered as protected speech. In other words, Volokh suggests that Google has as much freedom to decide what search results to show, as The New York Times has to decide what news to carry on its pages.
Volokh’s fascinating paper makes Google’s position clear. The company wants it both ways: both to be seen as an objective utility and a subjective publisher. Volokh, understandably, doesn’t see a problem with this.
The lay reader will be forgiven for being slightly confused. How can Google simultaneously say that it should not be responsible for search results, but also say that it reserves the right to cherry-pick results? (This works for Google, of course. The former absolves it from prosecution for misuse and the latter from irate parties unhappy with their position in search results.)
Legal nuances of this document apart, the manner in which Google has sought to bulwark its position is interesting. A white paper by a popular blogger and legal expert occupies a middle ground between one of Google’s own company blogs and a terse legal defence to be used in courts.
But the gist of the paper seems anything but new. For long-term observers of Google’s operations and philosophical leanings Volokh’s paper seems to be yet another attempt from Google to say: “Give us the benefit of the doubt. We promise to do no evil.” The more Google seems to say that, the less believable it is beginning to sound.
Is Google trying to have its cake and eat it too? Tell us at email@example.com