Why Google's right to re-order search results is bad for everyone

The US should take a page from its EU counterparts

A California court has upheld Google's apparent free speech right to display search results in whatever order it chooses, which is bad news for anyone who uses Google. In other words, most internet users.

In fact, the only people this is good for are the ones who work at Google.

As reported by GigaOM, the case originated when a website called CoastNews alleged Google was pushing it far down in search results. CoastNews apparently appears high up in Bing and Yahoo results, but according to the site Google interfered in its own results to keep it lower on the list of what people see when they search for San Francisco neighborhood-related queries.

Why Google would care about any of this is a mystery to you and me, but to CoastNews it's a conspiracy. It's possible that Google's unique search algorithms simply produced those results naturally, but that's beside the point.

Yes, whether or not Google really was mucking with where CoastNew appeared in search results is now irrelevant, since the court granted Google's anti-SLAPP motion - a lightning legal tactic to uphold the company's free speech - and ruled that Google can legally present results in any order it wants.

That's good news for Google, but it might not be so great for average users who just want to see the most relevant results - and not necessarily only the results Google wants them to see.

The right to choose

Even if Google wasn't tampering with results related to CoastNews (the case never went to trial, so Google was never officially found to), with nothing legally stopping Google from doing so in the future, the temptation will no doubt prove overwhelming to the search giant.

Why show searchers Yelp first, when Google Maps offers restaurant reviews, too? Why let anyone find out more about Apple Pay when the search company would rather you use Google Wallet anyway? This is the reality we now find ourselves in, though hopefully Google will keep its motto - "don't be evil" - in mind.

In the US "free speech" trumps all, and it seems internet search queries may suffer as a result. But even accepting that search results produced by a mathematical algorithm can possibly constitute an expression that warrants free speech protections, something that is debatable, shouldn't we maybe consider making an exception and not give the single most ubiquitous search service on the planet the option to filter out what it feels like?

Google has been batting back and forth with European Union regulators about this issue for years, and it's losing the game overseas. Regulators there are forcing Google to take steps like displaying competitors' ads in prominent positions, for example. Good for them.

But there are several precedents for this in past US cases, and many of them have swung in Google's favor. With another victory, the company must be reveling in retaining its ability to show you exactly what results it wants you to see - no matter what it is you actually want.

In other news, there's always Bing and Yahoo.