Trump team suggests regulating Google — what does that entail?
He’s vowed to address the situation — without providing evidence or giving details of action he might take.
Officials in the Trump administration have said they will look into regulating the online giant. But what would that look like?
Trump said large social media companies should not be allowed to “control what we can and cannot see.”
“You look at Google, Facebook, Twitter and other social media giants and I made it clear that we as a country cannot tolerate political censorship, blacklisting and rigged search results,” Trump said.
“We will not let large corporations silence conservative voices,” he added, noting that “it can go the other way someday too.”
WATCH: White House adviser looking into Trump’s claim that Google only shows ‘Fake News Media’ in search results
“He is taking issue with something that we know well exists: a personalization effect,” Elizabeth Dubois, a communications professor at the University of Ottawa, explained.
“The concern that has been put forward by Trump is that these are ideologically biased results.”
But she explained that research has shown personalization is going to “give you more of what you already like rather than more of what Google may or may not like.”
But much of Google’s search algorithm – the thing it uses to find and display the search results – is shrouded in secrecy.
While Google has been accused of promoting its own products in search engine results, officials have denied accusations of a political agenda.
“Our goal is to make sure [users] receive the most relevant answers in a matter of seconds,” spokesperson Riva Sciuto told the Washington Post. “Search is not used to set a political agenda, and we don’t bias our results toward any political ideology.”
Here are some issues that could come up if the government tried to regulate Google.
First amendment rights
Many politicians, lawyers and tech workers have opposed regulating the search engine on the basis of first amendment rights.
And rightly so, the U.S. has a high bar for any content-based restrictions by government on speech, explained University of New Brunswick law professor Hilary Young.
But that doesn’t mean it wouldn’t be able to impose regulations on how and where the results are shown.
“The important distinction in U.S. law is between content-based restrictions (rarely permissible) and time, manner and place restrictions (more likely permissible),” Young explained.
“The government can legislate against loud speech or speech in public places in the middle of the night, but it can rarely legislate so as to say: ‘You can say x but not y.’”
She suggested some regulations could take the form of requiring Google to not use advertising in results.
“But content-based restrictions, especially one requiring Google to portray the U.S. president in a certain way, would almost certainly be unconstitutional.”
WATCH: Should the government intervene with Google’s privacy issues?
Precedent: Germany, France and China
In Germany and France, Google adheres to rules that prohibit the promotion of certain types of information; for example, information about Holocaust denial conspiracy theories are not allowed to be shown on search pages.
“There is a potential for regulation,” Dubois explained. “And there is example already where we can see certain things that have been deemed inappropriate socially and politically that are not allowed.”
As for China, Google reportedly has plans to launch a censored version of its search engine, will block some websites and search terms.
China is notorious for blocking words and terms that appear to criticize the government, and human rights advocates say it sets a “chilling precedent” and raises serious questions about Google’s autonomy.
But should tech companies be regulated?
“So technically and legally, it could be possible,” Dubois said. “But whether or not it’s actually needed is a very different question.”
She says she would need to see a systematic study of Google’s search results to try and understand whether or not there is bias.
“From all of the research that’s been done so far, we don’t have evidence to suggest that Google results are biased in that way,” she explained.
In recent days, other tech companies have banned certain content – most famously, conspiracy theorist Alex Jones’ Infowars podcast – for being inappropriate.
Trump has used this anecdote as an example of tech companies’ bias against Conservative media. (For reference, Jones was banned for violating the terms of service of Facebook, Vimeo and other tech sites.)
But this is where it gets tricky, Dubois explained. While small businesses can reserve the right to refuse service based on terms of service, companies like Google and Facebook are different.
“When you think of companies as a pretty integral player in our information system, it gets a lot more challenging,” she said, explaining those companies may be held to a higher standard.
“It depends on how we think about Google and these tech companies and it all depends on how we think about our information system — whether or not we value that sort of balance portrayal of information.”
Either way, it will be interesting to see how things play out.
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