Guilty as Charged

Seth Finkelstein is cross with people like me:

I’m basically completely unable to get the law/policy types to realize the enormous extent to which Wikipedia is de facto subsidized by Google. Here, not only is Wikipedia getting yet another boost, but some of its arguable commercial competitors are being killed! It’s not because Wikipedia has some magic itself, in "community" or "civility", or whatever huckerism is being hyped. Rather, it has the algorithm support of Google.

I accept this is true. So?

Seth’s complaints seem to be (1) that Google’s ranking algorithms are not neutral; (2) that they tend to favor large corporate aggregator sites over blogs like his or mine; (3) that there is a real chance that this favoritism is driven by a self-dealing agenda, since Google owns sites like YouTube that do well off point 2, and even if that isn’t what drives it, we should worry about it; (4) that it is wrong to excuse Google’s choices on the grounds that true search neutrality is impossible, because neutrality might be possible if we worked harder on the problem.

Of these, I guess I accept that (1) is true. And (2) may be true, but I’m ready to believe that it satisfies consumer demand. So barring new evidence, I am only concerned about (3), that is the possibility of self-dealing and self-favoritism. For which we don’t yet have much evidence, although it pays to be vigilant. As for (4), well, Seth has me dead to rights.

And I still don’t see why Google’s favoring of Wikipedia should bother me.

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5 Responses to Guilty as Charged

  1. I am a law/policy type, and I “realize” that Google systematically favors certain kinds of sites. I’ve published at least four papers saying just that. I just don’t agree with Seth that these particular ranking decisions are a problem. I suspect others feel the same way. It’s not that we misunderstand Google; it’s that we like Wikipedia, and this, Seth cannot abide.

  2. Yikes! What a collection of strawmen and misstatements. Granted, some of the lack of clarity is arguably my fault, since I thought it impolitic to be more pointed in my criticism. However, some of this post seems to entirely misread the points I’m trying to make.

    There are several different main points I had in mind:

    1) The massive effective subsidy that Google gives Wikipedia, hugely significant in making the latter the top site that it is.

    2) The monopoly/anti-trust/”neutrality” etc issues with Google vs competitors and Google’s own properties.

    3) The broad effects Google has on general types of sites which are successful.

    What ties these together is Google’s algorithmic choices affect all of them. And this update is evidence of how it works in practice.

    I’ll send you guys an email where I can name names about some aspects I don’t think I should discuss in public. Note, James, if you consider it a reasonable criticism to say “it’s that we like Wikipedia, and this, Seth cannot abide”, would you consider it reasonable for me to say something like “It’s not that James doesn’t understand this, it’s that he likes Google, so criticism, he can’t abide”.

  3. Seth, you’re right, my last sentence wasn’t reasonable criticism. It’s unwarranted speculation about your chain of reasoning, and it wasn’t necessary to the main point I wanted to make. I do recognize Google’s enormous power to make sites visible or to hide them, and that I’ve written about that power at length. I haven’t specifically used Wikipedia as an example, but on the underlying descriptive point, I’m more than happy to agree with you. A series of choices made by Google employees result in Wikipedia’s prominence in Google search results across a wide range of queries. These choices drive traffic to Wikipedia; Google likely plays a significant role in Wikipedia’s popularity.

    I believe we disagree about the ethical and policy conclusions that flow from this fact. That’s an important conversation to have, and one I expect we’ll continue. I was annoyed at the suggestion that my views in this conversation on the implications of search stem from basic ignorance about the role search plays on the web. But I may have taken umbrage too quickly. If you weren’t including me in the “law/policy types” that the quotation was aimed at, I’m happy to apologize for making that assumption, as well.

  4. Vic says:

    Welcome to Web 2.0

    Is anyone really surprised by ANY of this? This has been talked about in non-legal circles for years. What Google is being accused of is already true for virtually every other part of our commercial input spectrum – why should the Internet somehow remain immune to it?

    It’s not simply a question of good and bad. The only way to stop the inevitable steps Google (but for one example) took, is to turn the Internet into a Police State that enforces somebody’s vision of pretend anarchy. In other words, outlaw anything (and who decides?) that tends to favor one website over another – creating a veneer of equality, by force. It’s not going to happen, and I doubt you’d like it if it did. (Unless you also think it’d be a good idea to enforce a nationwide 1mph speed limit to prevent the 30,000+ traffic fatalities every year)

    You just need to face the fact that life isn’t always fair, and sometimes the interests of commerce create more unfairness. I stopped losing sleep over this many, many years ago.

  5. Mike Marshall says:

    This isn’t about the relationship between Wikipedia and Google, but as someone who really doesn’t like Wikipedia, I’d like to share the following:

    (“The great failure of Wikipedia,” where he discusses several *really* interesting case studies and the “inclusionist/deletionist” debate)

    (“Wikipedia Brick by Brick,” where he points out, in 2007, that Wikipedia is now basically the #1 search result for every noun, pronoun, and proper noun in the English language)

    BTW- the presenter is Jason Scott and everything this guy does is pure gold. Be sure to check out his website, where he documents the BBS culture of the 1970s-early 1990s.

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