Event: Is ‘search neutrality’ important for the digital economy?

We held a panel discussion for pictfor members and the public on Monday 6th February 18.30-20.00 hrs in The Grand Committee Room, Westminster Hall. Our Speakers were Shivaun Raff (CEO, FoundemAlec Muffett (Computer Security specialist, consultant and writer) Mark Margaretten (University of Bedfordshire). The panel was chaired, to start with by Eric Joyce MP (pictfor) and then by myself (Martin Brown)for most of the meeting. You can see more of what was said on the night in our twitter feed @pictfor.

We started with an idea…. search engines like Google and Bing play a crucial role  in steering traffic and revenues through the Global digital economy: they are an essential component of the Internet’s infrastructure. With that in mind should we be looking beyond the well-known arguments about network neutrality and considering the idea of “search neutrality” ?  For example, what external standards, if any, and what editorial policies should be applied to searches and how comprehensive, impartial and ‘relevant’  do those searches need to be to meet our needs? The need for a discussion about search neutrality is seen as pressing by UK Search companies like Foundem, presently involved in an anti-trust case against Google, and their position can be seen here.

Our speakers entered into a frank and at times heated discussion about search neutrality, google and anti-trust issues while the audience asked testing questions. A detailed  description of  the issues and more on what was said on the night can be seen in the Open Digital blog thanks to James Firth. Here are some brief notes from me outlining  the speakers views views:

Shivaun Raff: made strong arguments in a measured way for her price comparison and search business.  The audience warmed to her as she described her company’s problem in clear and considered tones. She pulled no punches in accusing google of being self referencing and in serious danger of becoming a marketing channel for its own products. She described the general problem with google as ” a pipe and not a cloud issue” in that google is part of the pipe Internet infrastructure, with additional responsibilities, as are Internet Service Providers (Mark challenged this). I thought  the audience listened more carefully when Shivaun described how google was eroding their user choice as google’s own services, such as finance, price comparison (google product search) maps and now travel, became more dominant.

Alec Muffatt:  was very good at  describing both the technical detail of search algorithms and the commercial imperatives involved with google’s Internet search service. He started carefully by explaining that search results are quite subjective and often a  matter of taste: ” poking the google algorithm to try and make it more fair is not a solution because search results are always artificial…. he asked: what is fair and what is relevant?” Alec stressed that he liked the google search as it is and stressed that “google is the best we have”.

Mark Margaretten:  stated quite clearly that there was a much larger issue at stake here than Foundem’s search ranking problem and it was the issue of freedom of speech. He thought that Foundem was in effect asking for further regulation of the Internet and in this case  that meant interfering with the cloud and content held there….at a time when there were already  several threats to net neutrality  as ISPs are pressured to voluntarily police the Internet and censor content. He argued that “no individual or  business has a right to high search results”  and Foundem did not have a strong enough commercial case to try and force google to change the way it operates in digital space. For him it would be setting an unwelcome precedent for Foundem to win it’s case on anti-trust.

Martin Brown (pictfor)


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