Will the Federal government regulate Google's search algorithm?

Google is facing calls for anti-privacy and anti-trust regulation on both sides of the Atlantic. And now there's talk about something much more radical: having the U.S. government monitor Google's "secret sauce," its search algorithm. This would be an unprecedented regulation of technology.

Google is facing a variety of potential investigations, including in the U.S. and Europe because the company's Street View vehicles gathered people's private communications on their home WiFi networks. Even before that, European countries were calling for investigating Google's privacy policies.

In the U.S. there have been rumbling from Washington about potential anti-trust investigations of Google. A New York Times article summarizes the various anti-trust issues that Google faces. It quotes Tim Wu, a professor at Columbia University and the author of a forthcoming book on technology monopolies, "The Master Switch: The Rise and Fall of Information Empires" as saying about the federal government looking at Google and anti-trust actions:

"They are not just on the radar screen. They are the at the center of it. If you are in the federal government and are interested in antitrust, you are looking at Google."

The Times, though, quotes a Google critic who goes well beyond asking for anti-trust actions. He wants the federal government to monitor Google's search algorithms, to ensure that it doesn't unfairly favor Google over rivals.

The Times says that in the 1990s, lawyer Gary Reback:

almost single-handedly brought the antitrust weight of the federal government down on that era's high-tech heavyweight, Microsoft. Now Mr. Reback contends there is a dangerous new monopolist in the catbird seat: the search giant Google.

Reback is representing the London comparison shopping site Foundem, who have complained, according to the article that:

in 2006, Google's supposedly objective algorithms suddenly dropped Foundem into the netherworld of Google search results. They say Google also raised the rates Foundem had to pay to advertise alongside search results. These moves, the couple say, pushed their comparison shopping site out of view, and Google later put the spotlight on its own shopping listings.

Reback says in the article that Google is the

"arbiter of every single thing on the Web, and it favors its properties over everyone else's. What it wants to do is control Internet traffic. Anything that undermines its ability to do that is threatening."

This goes to the very core of Google's existence. That is made clear toward the end of the article, when Reback says that the federal government should monitor Google's search algorithms, to make sure it doesn't favor Google over rivals. The Time says of Reback:

He is eager to talk about legal remedies to antitrust concerns, including appointing an independent expert to monitor Google's algorithm to ensure that it does not unfairly penalize rivals like Foundem.

It sounds far-fetched. But Mr. Reback says that a serious conversation has started about Google’s power. "The government is finally onto the notion that they have to start asking questions about Google," he said. "Google started off saying they were going to treat everything on the Web neutrally. That is the basis on which they secured dominance. And now they've changed the rules."

I can understand calls to watch over Google for potential privacy invasions and possible anti-trust issues. But monitoring the actual search algorithm itself? That's far too radical a move, and would be unprecedented. The government certainly has the right to make sure companies don't violate anti-trust laws or privacy laws. But it has no right to become so intimately involved with a company's trade secrets.

Beyond that, imagine the federal government digging into the algorithm. Just think for a moment about the incomprehensibility of U.S. tax code. Can you imagine what the feds would do if they got their hands on Google' search algorithm?

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