Wednesday 23 August 2017

How do we pay for search?

[This is taken from a Twitter thread I posted on June 27th. I'm reposting it here now because it's part of supporting argument for a larger project I'm working on about the future of news publishing]

Seriously, folks, how do we want to pay for search? It's a major public service of the Internet age. We all use it. Google (and Bing, and others) provide us with search for free and fund it by showing us adverts and links to their own services.

But search is not free. The effort of cataloging & indexing all the information on the web costs serious compute time. Literally thousands - possibly by now millions - of computers operate 24 hours a day every day just doing that and nothing else. Another vast army of computers sits waiting for our search queries and serving us responses quickly and efficiently. All this costs money: servers, buildings, vast amounts of electricity, bandwidth. It's not free. It's extremely expensive.

Google's implicit contract with us is that we supply them with information about ourselves through what we search for, and also look at the adverts they show us, and in return Google (or Bing, or...) supplies us with an extraordinarily powerful search service.

The EU say it's not OK for Google to show us adverts for their own services (specifically, their price comparison service). Why is it not OK? We all understand the implicit contract. It's always been OK for other media to show adverts for their own stuff. How many trailers for other programmes does the BBC (or ITV, or Sky...) show in a day? You can't watch BBC TV without seeing trails for other BBC services/programmes. The BBC don't show trails for Sky, nor Sky for BBC.

So I don't understand why it's wrong for Google to do this. But if we think it is wrong, how do we want to pay for search?  I can perfectly see an argument that search is too important to be entrusted to the private sector, that search ought to be provided by an impartial, apolitical public service - like e.g. a national library - funded out of taxation. 

But the Internet is international, so if it was a public sector organisation it would in effect be controlled by the UN. This is an imperfect world, with imperfect institutions. Not all members of the UN are democracies. The Saudis sit on the UN Womens' Rights Commission. Do we want them controlling search?

Search is really important. It is important that it should be as far as possible unbiased, neutral, apolitical. Trusted. But Google knows that its whole business is based on trust. It is greatly in its interests to run an impartial search service. 

I am a communist. I inherently trust socialised institutions above private ones. But we all know the implicit contract with Google.  I value search; for me, it is worth being exposed to the adverts that Google shows me, and sharing a bit of personal information. But, if we as a society choose, as the EU implies, not to accept that contract, how do we as a society want to pay for search?

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