Here is a dilemma for conservatives. We shun government regulation of business, but some regulation is good. It is not in the public interest to have plutonium shops or designer virus boutiques popping up on street corners, so we pass regulations to make sure it doesn’t happen. All businesses fall under some type of government scrutiny. Some of it is justified, some of it is costly red tape, and some of it is solely for the purpose of extracting revenue. What about Internet regulation? When do the interests of a private company conflict with the common good?
We despise big government, but what about big Internet?
The Internet is still the Wild West, the domain of spammers, porn vendors, cyber spying, viruses, and a host of things most of us prefer to not even know about. Our fear of Washington exploiting the Internet for revenue has been fed by rumors about levying a tax on emails and the threat of legislation to stiffen sales taxes on online transactions, like the Marketplace Fairness Act (see: These Words Will Help You Spread Lies Like a Liberal).
While we worry about what our government might do to take a little extra cash from our online activities, a much scarier opponent is engaging in its own brand of Internet regulation. The hands down winner in the search engine business, Google operates quietly in the background with an iron fist, arguably subversive because no one seems to know exactly what it does, when it will decide to do it, or what its machinations will mean for Americans who rely on the Internet.
Is private Internet regulation worse than big government regulation?
At least with government regulation we have a law we can read and a chance to get even when the next election rolls around. No such luck when it comes to the company that is synonymous with the Internet. Website owners know too well what can happen when Google decides to shake up its formula for how it views their sites. Businesses incur costs hiring techies who claim to know how to appease Google, yet no one ever seems certain just what it takes to keep this giant happy.
Google recently rolled out its new process for handling image searches. The argument is ongoing whether this was a good or a bad thing for businesses and site owners, an irrelevant issue because users had no choice. There are plenty of anecdotal accounts suggesting the damage done whenever Google makes the decision to shake up how it views the Internet. Does Google’s unpredictability and the vast number of Internet users its changes impact mean Washington should clamp down on the nearly $800 a share Internet god, or is big government Internet regulation so inconceivable that we are better leaving it all up to Google?
Businesses bend for Google. Google bends for no one.
Google creates jobs, something our Federal Government can’t do, unless creating jobs means hiring more government workers. An entire industry is devoted to anticipating what makes Google happy and how to avoid what makes it sad or even angry. There is a lot of speculation, conjecture, and talk about cloaked penalties and virtual timeouts for website owners that run afoul of Google’s good will. When we see our ranking drop or when Google turns its back on what we have to offer, sometimes all we can do is scratch our head and hope to guess better next time.
When Google changes its mind about what it wants, people and businesses can get hurt. Despite Microsoft’s efforts to promote its Google wannabe, Bing, Google’s domination of the Internet search business is unchallenged. That means we have little choice but to anticipate its needs, even though we can never be sure just what those needs are.
Google vs. Washington?
Google doesn’t own the Internet, but tweaking search algorithms that change what we find when we use the Web is a subtle, even necessary form of regulation that can be damaging and puts us in a quandary. For the Internet to be useable someone has to keep watch, but Google is a private company whose chief concern is and should be turning a profit. Washington is warning us about the risk of cyber terrorism, identity theft, and other perils and will eventually use those threats to turn the Internet into a revenue source. When that happens, look for the kind of big government regulation we dread.
As the need for more tax revenue becomes acute, politicians will be itching to get their hands on the World Wide Web. What will happen when our government’s needs conflict with Google’s? Does Google depend on us, or does our dependence on the Internet mean that we serve Google?