Is an Internet Fairness Doctrine a good idea? The New York Times seems to think so. The editors last week demanded Google be subject to “search neutrality” — without specifying how this would work. “Some early suggestions for how to accomplish this,” they note, “include having Google explain with some specified level of detail the editorial policy that guides its tweaks. Another would be to give some government commission the power to look at those tweaks.” But making a “Federal Search Commission” responsible for search-result “fairness” would not only cripple the constant process of improving the relevance of results, but also open the system to gaming by scammers and spammers.
Of course, the Times isn’t exactly a bastion of regulatory skepticism, so it’s hardly surprising they’d demand such heavy-handed micromanagement of the Internet. (Though what would they think about having their editorial discretion tinkered with by federal regulators to restrain their own “gatekeeper” influence?) What is surprising, and disappointing, is that some skeptics of regulatory crusades for “fairness” seem willing to applaud this latest push to regulate the Internet — or at least turn a blind eye, since it’s Google in the regulatory crosshairs this time.
Some resent how heavily Google’s employees have given to Democratic candidates. Others believe Google is “reaping what it sowed” by supporting “Net neutrality” regulation and other techno-meddling. (The same premise underlies calls for neutrality regulation in both the broadband and search arenas: “Information gatekeepers” will use their “bottleneck” power to stifle dissent and thwart competition — unless government forces them to operate as “public utilities.”) Google didn’t mind when Microsoft, telcoms, or cable companies were in the dock. But now that they’re next in line for expropriation and commoditization through public-utility regulation, perhaps they’re starting to see the dangers of growing government.
But the principles at stake are too important for free marketeers to gloat. If consumers’ ability to click over to another free search engine is deemed insufficient to discipline Google’s editorial discretion, how can we promote competition as an alternative to regulation more generally? If government compels Google to surrender control of its platform, what other Internet-platform operator is safe from regulation to ensure “fairness”? Microsoft has labored for years under the heavy hand of its antitrust wet-nurses in Washington and Brussels, second-guessing product design and integration questions. Will Apple, Facebook, or Amazon be next? What incentives will there be for investors and innovators to take risks in building tomorrow’s information tools and services if marketplace success is rewarded with regulatory shackles?
Believers in limited government must stand united for high-tech property rights and digital speech freedoms for all players and platforms. Although not traditionally a strong defender of property rights, Google is now at the center of what will become the most important media-freedom battle of our lifetimes. Hopefully, this push to expropriate their core intellectual property — their algorithm — will teach them the importance of respecting the property rights of others, and to be careful about allying with groups that promote Internet regulation.
Unfortunately, the high-tech industry is increasingly a house divided against itself. Intensifying efforts by Google and its rivals to throw each other under the regulatory bus in the “neutrality” wars are just the latest example of what Milton Friedman called the “business community’s suicidal impulse” — and will ultimately lead to the equivalent of mutual assured destruction. Ultimately, it’s consumers and American technological leadership that will suffer most in the Internet’s impending regulatory “nuclear winter.”
– Berin Szoka is a senior fellow at, and Adam Thierer is president of, the Progress & Freedom Foundation, a market-oriented think tank in Washington, D.C., that studies the digital revolution and its implications for public policy.