This bi-lingual edited volume on ‘The Power of Search Engines‘ just came out. It is edited by Marcel Machill and Markus Beiler, both from the Media Sciences Faculty of the University of Leipzig. It is certainly worth reading. Some contributions are in German, others in English. The book is the result of a conference in Berlin in June 2006, “Die wachsende Macht von Suchmaschinen im Internet: Auswirkungen auf User, Medienpolitik und Medienbusiness.“.
The introduction by the editors (in German) , ‘Search Engine Research. Overview and systematics of an interdisciplinary research field’ is an excellent overview of search engine research (except for information retreival). The volume continues in three parts. The first and most substantive part attacks search engine law and policy issues, including search engine economics, the second the subject of search engines and journalism, and the third the quality of search engines and user behaviour.
Wolfgang Schulz and Thorsten Held made a contribution to the first part (in German) They write about the issue of Search Engine (Self-)Censorship in Germany and the question whether the present practice of filtering by major search engines is in line with the prohibition of censorship and the Freedom of Expression (in Germany). Since 2004 there is a self-regulatory regime adopted by the major search engines, to filter certain results (such as hate speech and child pornography). The search engines use the lists of the (government) agency for the protection of minors. The question Schulz and Held answer (negatively) is whether this filtering can be seen as a result of State action, thereby qualifying as an infringement of article 10 ECHR. (NB. This infringement could well be justified under article 10 (2) ECHR.)
They (and others) also deal with the issue what type of Freedom of Expression protection search engines should receiv, i.e. what type of medium we are dealing with (Press, Common carrier, Broadcasting?). They conclude that under German Constitutional Law search engines can be seen as broadcasters (Rundfunk) and therefore receive protection of article 5 abs. 1 S. 2 GG. They argue that search engine service in their ordinary non-personalized form constitute a public communication by means of telecommunication. The degree of “relevance for the forming of opinions” (Meinungsbildungsrelevanz) search engines are seen to have can consequentially be a reason for stronger regulation than other media. (TV is said to have a very high relevance for the forming of opinions).
Elizabeth Van Couvering raises that issue as well and suggests that the broadcasting model should be considered for search engines. Her piece “The Economy of Navigation: Search Engines, Search Optimization and Search Results” is part of her PhD project and deals with the issue of manipulation of search engine results from a poltical economic point of view.
The contribution I liked best is “Concepts of Power in Search Engine Research” (in german), by Theo R”ohle, from the Media and Communications Institute of the University of Hamburg. He critically examines the different approaches taken regarding the power of search engines and proposes an approach based on Actor Network Theory. According to Ro”hle, much of Search Engine research and coverage in the Media, relates to the growing power of search engines, but that power has not yet been systematically examined.
Other contributors (among many others) include Urs Gasser, Boris Rotenberg, Vinzenz Wyss, Guido Keel, Benjamin Peters, Dirk Lewandowski and Benjamin Edelman.