Search engines are wondrous things. I myself use Google search umpteen times a day. I don’t think I could work or play without it anymore. And yet I am a strong supporter of the contentious “Right to be Forgotten”. The “RTBF” is hotly contested, and I am the first to admit it’s a messy business. For one thing, it’s not ideal that Google itself is required for now to adjudicate RTBF requests in Europe. But we have to accept that all of privacy is contestable. The balance of rights to privacy and rights to access information is tricky. RTBF has a long way to go, and I sense that European jurors and regulators are open and honest about this.
One of the starkest RTBF debating points is free speech. Does allowing individuals to have irrelevant, inaccurate and/or outdated search results blocked represent censorship? Is it an assault on free speech? There is surely a technical-legal question about whether the output of an algorithm represents “free speech”, and as far as I can see, that question remains open. Am I the only commentator suprised by this legal blind spot? I have to say that such uncertainty destabilises a great deal of the RTBF dispute.
I am not a lawyer, but I have a strong sense that search outputs are not the sort of thing that constitutes speech. Let’s bear in mind what web search is all about.
Google search is core to its multi-billion dollar advertising business. Search results are not unfiltered replicas of things found in the public domain, but rather the subtle outcome of complex Big Data processes. Google’s proprietary search algorithm is famously secret, but we do know how sensitive it is to context. Most people will have noticed that search results change day by day and from place to place. But why is this?
When we enter search parameters, the result we get is actually Google’s guess about what we are really looking for. Google in effect forms a hypothesis, drawing on much more than the express parameters, including our search history, browsing history, location and so on. And in all likelihood, search is influenced by the many other things Google gleans from the way we use its other properties — gmail, maps, YouTube, hangouts and Google+ — which are all linked now under one master data usage policy.
And here’s the really clever thing about search. Google monitors how well it’s predicting our real or underlying concerns. It uses a range of signals and metrics, to assess what we do with search results, and it continuously refines those processes. This is what Google really gets out of search: deep understanding of what its users are interested in, and how they are likely to respond to targeted advertising. Each search result is a little test of Google’s Artificial Intelligence, which, as some like to say, is getting to know us better than we know ourselves.
As important as they are, it seems to me that search results are really just a by-product of a gigantic information business. They are nothing like free speech.