September 19, 2017

Search Neutrality ? Net Neutrality

Sunday’s New York Times featured a provocative op-ed arguing in addition to regulating “net neutrality” the FCC should also effectuate “search neutrality” – requiring search providers rank results without consideration of business entities. The author heaps particular scorn upon Google for promoting its own context-relevant services (i.e. maps and weather) at the fore of search results. Others have already reviewed the proposal, leveled implementation critiques, and criticized the author’s gripes with his own site. My aim here is to rebut the piece’s core argument: the analogy of search neutrality to net neutrality. Clearly both are debates about the promotion of innovation and competition through a level playing field. But beyond this commonality the parallel breaks down.

Net neutrality advocates call for regulation because ISP discrimination could render innovative services either impossible to implement owing to traffic restrictions or too expensive to deploy owing to traffic pricing. Consumers cannot “vote with their dollars” for a nondiscriminatory ISP since most locales have few providers and the market is hard to break into. Violations of net neutrality, the argument goes, threaten to nip entire industries in the bud and rob the economy of growth.

Violations of search neutrality, on the other hand, at most increase marketing costs for an innovative or competitive offering. Consumers are more than clever enough to seek and use an alternative to a weaker Google offering (Yelp vs. Google restaurant reviews, anyone?). The author of the op-ed cites Google Maps’ dethroning of MapQuest as evidence of the power of search non-neutrality; on the contrary, I would contend users flocked to Google’s service because it was, well, better. If Google Maps featured MapQuest’s clunky interface and vice versa, would you use it? A glance at historical map site statistics empirically rebuts the author’s claim. The mid-May 2007 introduction of Google’s context-relevant (“universal”) search does not appear correlated with any irregular shift in map site traffic.

Moreover, unlike with net neutrality search consumers stand ready to “vote with their [ad] dollars.” Should Google consistently favor its own services to the detriment of search result quality, consumers can effortlessly shift to any of its numerous competitors. It is no coincidence Google sinks enormous manpower into improving result quality.

There may also be a benefit to the increase in marketing costs from existing violations of search neutrality, like Google’s map and weather offerings. If a service would have to be extensively marketed to compete with Google’s promoted offering – say, a current weather site vs. searching for “Stanford weather” – the market is sending a signal that consumers don’t care about the marginal quality of the product, and the non-Google provider should quit the market.

There is merit to the observation that violations of search neutrality are, on the margin, slightly anti-competitive. But this issue is dwarfed by the potential economy-scale implications of net neutrality. The FCC should not deviate in its rulemaking.

Comments

  1. Andy Steingruebl says:

    The obvious factor neglected here is the switching costs between ISPs vs. Search Engines.

    It can cost me a lot or in some areas be impossible to switch ISPs. Switching search engines is trivial. Users are always entirely free to choose their search engine, whereas many users (high rises with dedicated plans, rural consumers with only 1 provider) cannot switch their ISP.

  2. I regard the article as a stick in the eye to the Net Neutrality jingoists. Thank goodness someone has a sense of humor about it. Let’s have Project Management Neutrality, ToDo List Neutrality, and CRM Neutrality while we are at it.

    Your argument actually reveals the real problem we have with ISPs and the first commenter makes it even more clear. We should be solving the last mile problem, and making switching costs as low as possible instead of building a new overlord for our next generation. The realization that providing internet service like ANY OTHER BUSINESS (including search or todo list software) requires operators to make decisions based on their best interests (usually maximizing profits and growing the customer base) could hopefully be the first step.

    • Anonymous says:

      Perhaps the solution is to nationalize the last mile. This has sometimes proved best in other cases of natural infrastructure monopolies, such as the road system. In this case, governments would buy existing last-mile infrastructure, or would deploy new fiber-optics to the curb, providing the most basic internet service: TCP/IP routing, DNS, and a static IPV6 address per endpoint. Third-party providers would continue to provide things like email, etc. The government ISP would be minimalist (and may still have private competition, e.g. from DSL or cable companies) and free or very cheap, without caps, and would be mandated by whatever law created it to function as a non-discriminatory common carrier and not to deep-packet-inspect or shape traffic. Unwanted internet traffic would be the recipient’s responsibility to ignore in all but the most egregious cases of DoS or spamming.

      Fiber makes cheap, uncapped broadband feasible; as for the costs of installing it all, a) these are one-time costs, b) the government can pay for this partially out of tax dollars, and c) such a project can indeed be presently bankrolled as a stimulus project. Only unlike many of the dig-a-hole-fill-a-hole stimulus projects (anyone else notice a big spike in road construction in 2009?) this would make a lasting upgrade to national infrastructure that would pay dividends in the long run in added value and downstream increases in economic productivity. (Road improvements last what, a few years? A few hundred Mb/s to every doorstep will do much more for much longer and may even be cheaper to install.)

      This would also force the issue on digital copyright, by putting a provider of fast broadband in place that was required by law not to peek at or discriminate against traffic. Noncommercial copying would become defacto impossible to police, and though that might cause some short-term pain in the less flexible parts of the entertainment industry, I think that would benefit everyone in the long run, including the entertainment industry. Currently, that industry is held hostage by a few very large media companies with distribution monopolies — the major record labels and movie studios particularly come to mind. These few big dinosaurs have a stranglehold on consumers and artists alike. Destroy any hope of their retaining those monopolies, and that stranglehold swiftly dissolves. Already we see some artists, in various media (including film), going direct-to-consumer and cutting out the traditional middlemen, and many of them are finding ways to do this very profitably; the middlemen are obsolete and that is the real reason they are fighting tooth and nail to cripple the Internet in the name of stopping illicit file sharing. But stopping illicit file sharing is not their true goal; crippling legal file sharing and artist-direct-to-consumer offerings and forcing artists to continue therefore to go through a small cadre of gatekeepers is their true goal, to sustain the status quo that has kept their particular gravy train chugging along for decades. It’s time for that train to derail, and universal non-discriminatory non-sniffed broadband would go a long way towards accelerating that process (though it is inevitable anyway).

  3. Gordon Mohr says:

    “Violations of search neutrality, on the other hand, at most increase marketing costs for an innovative or competitive offering.”

    I don’t get the “on the other hand”. This sounds exactly equivalent to “ISP discrimination could render innovative services… too expensive to deploy owing to traffic pricing.”

    In both cases, dominant incumbents, for the sake of their own profitability, make it too expensive for alternatives to ever reach most customers — so new services die (or aren’t even attempted), unable to reach necessary scale/reach.

    Similarly, your suggestion that competitors who can’t overcome Google’s distribution advantage should “quit the market” because of the “signal” that consumers “don’t care about the marginal quality” of their services could be applied to services choked by oligopoly ISPs as well. “If an innovative service can’t pay the same tolls to incumbent ISPs that other services have chosen to pay, the market is sending a signal that customers don’t care enough about the marginal quality of their product.” In both cases, the “signal” is more an indicator of the incumbents’ control over customers’ choices than it is of actual customer preferences.

  4. I think you are confusing the consumer of search engines with customers of search engines. The customers of search engines are advertisers.

  5. Anonymous says:

    The post immediately before this post is missing its comments link.

  6. Curt Sampson says:

    While I wouldn’t care much one way or the other whether the last mile is nationalized or not, it’s not strictly necessary. Here in Japan the fibre and DSL providers are private companies, but we still are allowed a choice of ISPs over that fibre. (I have more than twenty I can chose from, with a broad range of prices, services and quality levels.) I find it ironic that a relatively more socialist country has managed to introduce a market and competition in a way that the United States apparently can not.

    Note that the fibre provider doesn’t need to provide any IP connectivity at all; it simply needs to route PPPoE connections to the appropriate ISP.

  7. Panos Ipeirotis says:

    I think that author of the OpEd brought up the wrong argument when complained about the inability to appear in the top of the search results. I am not convinced that Google is penalizing competitors (or “competititors”) by pushing them down in the results.

    However, Google does use its monopoly power to introduce and bundle new services with its own engine, in a way that makes it very difficult for competitors to reach consumers. The maps and GPS examples are good.

    The closest analogy in this case is the Microsoft case with the bundling of IE within Windows. Why Microsoft was forced to allow users of its O/S to pick another browser and another media player? Notice that the switching costs for Microsoft consumers to download and install a new browser are really negligible.

    Should Google be also forced to have Bing as an alternative option for maps? Or other academic search engines in addition to Google Scholar?

    This analogy seems much closer to me, compared to the case of the ranking algorithm and the net neutrality problem.

  8. Panos Ipeirotis says:

    I think that author of the OpEd brought up the wrong argument when complained about the inability to appear in the top of the search results. I am not convinced that Google is penalizing competitors (or “competititors”) by pushing them down in the results.

    However, Google does use its monopoly power to introduce and bundle new services with its own engine, in a way that makes it very difficult for competitors to reach consumers. The maps and GPS examples are good.

    The closest analogy in this case is the Microsoft case with the bundling of IE within Windows. Why Microsoft was forced to allow users of its O/S to pick another browser and another media player? Notice that the switching costs for Microsoft consumers to download and install a new browser are really negligible.

    Should Google be also forced to have Bing as an alternative option for maps? Or other academic search engines in addition to Google Scholar?

    This analogy seems much closer to me, compared to the case of the ranking algorithm and the net neutrality problem.

  9. “Net neutrality” is the governmental foot in the door. Once it’s accepted that providers can be prohibited from weighting the quality of different services, the rest follows. Now it’s “search neutrality.” Next it could be “content neutrality,” an Internet fairness doctrine.

    There was a time, not so long ago, when the Internet proudly disdained governnmental intervention. Now far too many people welcome it.

    • There was a time, not so long ago, when the government ran the internet. That’s why it was network neutral to begin with.