Thursday, March 01, 2007

Google, Microsoft, and Yahoo Win Right To Discriminate

Did you see the item in the February 28 edition of the WSJ headlined "Search Engines Can Decline Ads"? [Subscription required]. If you are interested in the so-called net neutrality debate, you won't want to miss it, and it might leave you shaking your head.

According to the WSJ story, a federal judge in Wilmington, Delaware ruled that Google, Microsoft and Yahoo may refuse ads submitted by Stephen Langdon, a Florida resident, "who operates Web sites that purport to expose fraud by North Carolina government officials and alleged atrocities committed by the Chinese government."

The court ruled that the three search engines are not bound by the First Amendment to take the ads. Well, I agree with that. Not only should the First Amendment not require these dominant search engines to accept Mr. Langdon's ads, the First Amendment should protect them from government mandates that would purport to require them to do so.

In their zeal for advocating net neutrality mandates that would turn the broadband providers into common carriers, Google, MS, and Yahoo don't seem much concerned about the First Amendment rights of the providers. Putting aside their commitment, or lack thereof, to fundamental constitutional rights, what about their own commitment to net neutrality?

Here is what the WSJ reported about why the dominant search engines refused to run Mr. Langdon's ads: "Google declined to run Mr. Langdon's ads, telling him that it was a matter of policy. The company says it doesn't run ads advocating against groups or individuals. Microsoft's MSN ignored his ad request, and Yahoo refused because Mr. Langdon's sites weren't part of its ad network." A policy against ads that advocate against groups or individuals? Ignoring a request for access? Not part of an ad network? It all begins to sound a lot like discrimination and prioritization--indeed, outright suppression of speech--to me. With respect to Google, it certainly sounds like the discrimination is based on content. If MS doesn't even respond to the ad request, it's hard to know the basis of its choice to discriminate.

Anyway, if I were a "net neutrality" supporter, I'd be downright worried about the policies of the dominant search engines that are keeping Mr. Langdon's ads off their popular sites. If, better yet, I owned the three search engines, I might be worried about how my policies relating to picking and choosing content squared with my endorsement and promotion of net neutrality laws. Since I am not either one of the above, but rather a believer that the First Amendment generally would prevent the government from dictating how the search engines choose to display content, discriminatory or not, I'm going to go on worrying about other things right now.

But, as they say, someone ought to "worry this one through."