Minnesota Law Review

Speech Engines

Academic and regulatory debates about Google are dominated by two opposing theories of what search engines are and how law should treat them. Some describe search engines as passive, neutral conduits for websites’ speech; others describe them as active, opinionated editors: speakers in their own right. The conduit and editor theories give dramatically different policy prescriptions in areas ranging from antitrust to copyright. But they both systematically discount search users’ agency, regarding users merely as passive audiences.

A better theory is that search engines are not primarily conduits or editors, but advisors. They help users achieve their diverse and individualized information goals by sorting through the unimaginable scale and chaos of the Internet. Search users are active listeners, affirmatively seeking out the speech they wish to receive. Search engine law can help them by ensuring two things: access to high-quality search engines, and loyalty from those search engines.

The advisor theory yields fresh insights into long-running disputes about Google. It suggests, for example, a new approach to deciding when Google should be liable for giving a website the “wrong” ranking. Users’ goals are too subjective for there to be an absolute standard of correct and incorrect rankings; different search engines necessarily assess relevance differently. But users are also entitled to complain when a search engine deliberately misleads them about its own relevance assessments. The result is a sensible, workable compromise between the conduit and editor theories.

 

Academic and regulatory debates about Google are dominated by two opposing theories of what search engines are and how law should treat them. Some describe search engines as passive, neutral conduits for websites’ speech; others describe them as active, opinionated editors: speakers in their own right. The conduit and editor theories give dramatically different policy prescriptions in areas ranging from antitrust to copyright. But they both systematically discount search users’ agency, regarding users merely as passive audiences.

A better theory is that search engines are not primarily conduits or editors, but advisors. They help users achieve their diverse and individualized information goals by sorting through the unimaginable scale and chaos of the Internet. Search users are active listeners, affirmatively seeking out the speech they wish to receive. Search engine law can help them by ensuring two things: access to high-quality search engines, and loyalty from those search engines.

The advisor theory yields fresh insights into long-running disputes about Google. It suggests, for example, a new approach to deciding when Google should be liable for giving a website the “wrong” ranking. Users’ goals are too subjective for there to be an absolute standard of correct and incorrect rankings; different search engines necessarily assess relevance differently. But users are also entitled to complain when a search engine deliberately misleads them about its own relevance assessments. The result is a sensible, workable compromise between the conduit and editor theories.

Academic and regulatory debates about Google are dominated by two opposing theories of what search engines are and how law should treat them. Some describe search engines as passive, neutral conduits for websites’ speech; others describe them as active, opinionated editors: speakers in their own right. The conduit and editor theories give dramatically different policy prescriptions in areas ranging from antitrust to copyright. But they both systematically discount search users’ agency, regarding users merely as passive audiences.

A better theory is that search engines are not primarily conduits or editors, but advisors. They help users achieve their diverse and individualized information goals by sorting through the unimaginable scale and chaos of the Internet. Search users are active listeners, affirmatively seeking out the speech they wish to receive. Search engine law can help them by ensuring two things: access to high-quality search engines, and loyalty from those search engines.

The advisor theory yields fresh insights into long-running disputes about Google. It suggests, for example, a new approach to deciding when Google should be liable for giving a website the “wrong” ranking. Users’ goals are too subjective for there to be an absolute standard of correct and incorrect rankings; different search engines necessarily assess relevance differently. But users are also entitled to complain when a search engine deliberately misleads them about its own relevance assessments. The result is a sensible, workable compromise between the conduit and editor theories.

:: View PDF

News & Events

  • Fall Submissions Open – Headnotes

    The Minnesota Law Review: Headnotes fall submissions period is open. For more information, please visit our submissions page. Share this: on Twitter on Facebook on Google+

  • Vol. 97 Piece Quoted in Mother Jones Article

    A recent Mother Jones article predicting how the Roberts Court would resolve King v. Burwell draws on How Business Fares in the Supreme Court from Volume 97. You can read the article here. Share this: on Twitter on Facebook on Google+

  • Welcome to De Novo

    For nearly one hundred years, the Minnesota Law Review has been a leader amongst academic legal publications. When Professor Henry J. Fletcher launched the journal in 1917, his goal was simple. It was to “contribute a little something to the systematic growth of the whole law.” Since then, the Law [...]

  • Minnesota Law Review Alum Remembered 45 Years After Death

    Minnesota Law Review alumnus Tom Cranna was honored at the Annual Banquet this Spring, 45 years after his death. Mr. Cranna was remembered for his contributions to the journal, the school, and the positive impact he had on his family and friends. The Devil’s Lake Journal published a memorial which [...]

  • Follow MLR on Twitter!

    The Minnesota Law Review is proud to announce that we are now on Twitter. Follow us @MinnesotaLawRev for information and updates concerning the petition period and deadlines, the opening and closing of article submissions, our 2014 Symposium: Offenders in the Community, and all other news concerning our authors and publications. [...]

Newsletter

cforms contact form by delicious:days