Search neutrality: the new frontiers of the #netneutrality debate

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I just gave an interview to Euractiv in the matter of search neutrality, here my answers:

Net neutrality is a key topic in the EU debate and will likely remain so with the next Commission and Parliament. Can you give us a simple explanation of what it’s about?

Net neutrality means that internet service providers (ISPs), i.e. the telecoms operators providing internet access, are prevented from controlling which services or applications their subscribers can access on the internet. ISPs may affect such freedom by blocking, limiting, throttling access to services, or by differentiating the price of internet traffic for a given online service, favouring one service over another.

This means that for having a neutral internet, data traffic should be treated the same way?

This is a misleading debate. Internet bits are currently treated differently because of technological and routing reasons, and especially to avoid congestion. But net neutrality is not impaired if such bits management is not aimed at controlling what users want to access. Traffic management should not be a taboo, provided no specific services are discriminated.

Would net neutrality be preserved if ISPs were transparent about their traffic management?

Transparency does not solve the issue, because for a consumer it is not satisfactory to be informed about restrictions. Consumers just want to get an open Internet.

Is the consumer not free to change their ISP?

There are hundreds of ISPs in Europe, but they are just a few for a given consumer due to national barriers. Moreover, once an ISP is chosen, consumers are reluctant to migrate to other ISPs because of technical, contractual and timing reasons. This so-called lock-in is a fundamental barrier which limits consumers’ choices more than in other markets. For instance, the online search market is also under a kind of neutrality threat, but at least does not have the further anti-competitive pattern of the lock-in.

Where is the problem in the online search market?

The online search market is dominated by one player, Google, which potentially has the capacity of conveying web traffic, like a dominant ISP can do with internet traffic. The moment when Google starts to privilege one destination, rather than another, it is posing a threat to the “neutrality” of online search.

Can we therefore draw a parallel between net neutrality and search neutrality?

I would be cautious about this. In my opinion, internet search can never completely be neutral. Search tools and criteria are never completely objective, since they are designed, in a way, to meet the profile of users. If this is done well, the search engine will be successful, and consumers will recognise it.

Where does Google pose a risk then?

The main problem with search activities is transparency. Consumers may accept that some search results are displayed in a privileged manner, for example, to show advertisements. However, if advertising is done in a non-transparent way, search results may be misleading.

But consumers remain free to switch to other search engines?

True. Indeed, the main difference between the internet and the search sector is the lock-in factor. While for ISPs the lock-in is a fundamental barrier for changing provider, in the search engine market the lock-in does not work. If there is an alternative search engine, a simple “click” is enough. This is the main threat and weakness for Google.

Why then Google is so dominant, if the lock-in does not apply?

Google is dominant because customers recognise that it is the best service, not because they are locked. This success has been built through important investments in software and hardware, especially huge data centres. The continuing search activities all over the years reinforced its position, creating a kind of “information barrier” for potential competitors. This is a problem for online service providers, which are de facto locked into the dominant platform.

Will Google maintain its dominant position?

Things could change, if results displayed by Google became all for-pay, so that you have to scroll through various pages to find non-advertised results. In the long run, this would damage Google’s reputation. The same effect would come if Google diminished the transparency in distinguishing paid results from neutral material. Another problem is privacy and profiling, if the users start to think that the “personal data in exchange of free services” deal is not convenient anymore.



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