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FTC‘s Probe of Online Search Market: The Latest Threat to Internet Freedom

by Douglas Kellogg / /

The Federal Trade Commission’s current investigation of search engine practices threatens to become the next crisis for Internet freedom and e-commerce; and it is a threat that has remained under the radar.

Many are wholly unaware of the current FTC effort (along with other probes from some state-level district attorneys around the U.S. and the European Commission) to pursue “fairness” in the online search marketplace. Of course, readers of this blog were clued into the emerging danger sooner than others, when last year NTU raised concerns over the FTC’s actions.

Since then the concerns have intensified. Now, an NTU/IBOPE Zogby poll has revealed that the American people have no interest in such government interference in the search engine realm and they are quite happy with an already competitive batch of search options. The poll found 79 percent of respondents were against government regulation of search engines, and 76 percent thought more government involvement online would make the Internet worse for consumers.

So why is this even happening? As we saw with the uproar over the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA), when aggrieved interests with power and waning competitive strength join hands with a government eager to grow in power, the results can be damaging to the market and freedom - evoking intense public opposition. Right now the search engine investigation is in a more nascent stage, but the potential impacts of government search engine regulation are numerous.

Imagine an Internet search where the results were alphabetized. Imagine a search that pushed politician-approved results toward the top. Imagine asking Siri to find you the nearest McDonald’s and being given the locations of 10 other chain restaurants as well. The useless (and disturbing) possibilities go on … Think of the security problems posed by removing a search engine’s ability to prioritize your results? It’s tough enough keeping children in the proper corners of the Internet; government-enforced “fairness” could potentially make that task even tougher, or end up giving the government vast search engine censorship powers in the name of security.

Ever since the online marketplace has been changing consumers’ and taxpayers’ lives for the better, governments have been proposing taxation and regulation schemes that would make matters worse. Besides the threats of the Streamlined Sales and Use Tax Agreement and so-called “Net Neutrality” that NTU identified – not to mention the flap that many others raised over SOPA – government-backed investigations like FTC’s should be on the watch list too.

If you are reading about this for the first time, there is a lot to take in, but this situation looks to be the next battleground in the fight over online freedom. Stay tuned to NTU.org and Government Bytes for more.