It’s not often I agree with a Conservative MP, it’s even less often that I hear them say something that actually strikes me as truly insightful.
During the parliamentary debate on the BSkyB bid there was one such moment. At 6.25pm Dr Phillip Lee stood up and spoke to a now mostly empty chamber. This was a shame, because what he had to say was, in my view, extremely relevant and highly important. (Hansard)
He spoke on the fact that a lot, if not the vast majority, of the news people are getting today comes from not the mainstream media, the newspapers, magazines and TV, but from the “new media”, the social networks, sites like LibDem Voice and search engines.
I certainly get most of my news online and if I want more detail on an issue than my usual sites provide I turn to a search engine.
Companies like Yahoo!, Microsoft/Bing, and Google are the new arbiters of our news. They have it within their power to shape what we see, to shape our views on a subject, indeed to drive a specific agenda and we might never even notice it’s happening.
It could be deliberate, calculated, or it could simply be accidental. If the top search results all returned sites with a conservative outlook then what you read may well influence your views, or it might be liberal, or maybe just those sites that are favourable to the current agenda.
The algorithms the search engines use to generate their results are commercially secret and how would we know that they haven’t been tweaked so that news sites favourable to the engine’s owner don’t get weighted higher than those unfavourable? How often when searching does on go past the first page of results?
A recent example, something that might have been missed by many in the UK, is a court case Google lost in Belgium. A number of Belgian papers decided they didn’t like Google linking to their websites without permission or paying compensation and sued under copyright legislation. Then the law of unintended consequences kicked in. The papers didn’t want Google showing article extracts or photos as links, but Google interpreted links in its fullest sense and removed all the sites from its search results entirely, since the sites don’t appear they can’t be linked to, and hence Google doesn’t have to pay the fines. The papers of course suddenly aren’t happy that they got what they wanted. (Yes, the irony of that link was deliberate.)
Given my own views on copyright, I can’t help but laugh at those papers getting their comeuppance. Yet this is exactly the same problem we are now in crisis over, the close relationship between those needing exposure and those providing it. As far as Google users are concerned, those Belgian newspapers no longer exist. What if instead of newspapers, it was a political party?
With over 90% of the searches from the UK going through Google, that’s a lot of power concentrated in one place. We don’t want to end up in a situation where we finally remove the need/ability of politicians to suck up to the likes of News International to make sure they get favourable exposure only to shift this to companies like Google. Microsoft, Facebook, Twitter and all the others.