In the case of search engines, the evidence indicates that the culture of the technological entrepreneur is very effective in creating a new mega-business, but less successful in encouraging a debate on issues of the public good or public responsibility as they relate to the search engine industry.Great stuff from the conclusion:
search engine producers appeared to construct the search index and search results so that the most important markets they serve will have the most relevant results and they will thereby achieve greater customer satisfaction and higher revenues.
These processes were often carried out with high levels of secrecy. They create search engine results that are highly opaque to users and a climate in which questions of the public interest in search engine results, as opposed to questions of technical efficiency or market success, are far removed from their everyday search operations.
Finally, the prevailing wisdom and common sense within the search engine production community presents challenges for those who wish to discuss public interest or information ethics in connection with the search engine industry as questions in this area infringe on the values of “relevance” or of “customer satisfaction”. It will be the role of actors outside the search engine community, no doubt with the support from certain actors within it, to raise awareness of issues around bias and its implications for the public interest and to provide potential alternatives
The “internet culture” is predominantly individualistic, market oriented and opposed to most forms of regulation. Putting the case for a public interest in online media is fraught with difficulty. During this research I was met with bemusement and puzzlement, as well as encouragement, from many sources. Having said that, search engines operate in many parts of the world, notably in Europe, where the tradition of public service media is strong as compared the to the US. These parts of the world may be the best places to encourage discussion about how innovative approaches can be used to create a search engine industry that can help to deliver less biased search results and, arguably in consequence, a fairer information society for all.
I remember when she was doing the research, she tried very hard to get into the Google campus and "observe" the search engineers, trying to get a sense of bias in their work, but no go.
I can imagine the "bemusement and puzzlement" of techies as she asked them about those namby pamby things like "public service" and "public good." What is it about our culture, particularly Silicon Valley, that places the social contract ("what's that?") so low on the totem pole. I suspect it's the same individualistic spirit that drives a lot of innovation - if I can invent this cool new thing, I can make lots of money. All other considerations are a distraction and an obstacle.
Something to think about and be aware of. And I agree with her conclusion - the search engine industry and other parts of the tech sector are not going to address issues of public good and information ethics on their own - they need to be forced into action by the users delivering them all this search traffic, and by the governments that represent them.
Tim O'Reilly, John Battelle - you listening?
Oh, and by the way - CONGRATULATIONS, ELIZABETH!