Welcome to the Jungle

Advertising has always been tricky when it comes to regulating the grey areas at the edge of media and freedom of speech. Search is rapidly following down the same rocky path and tripping over mine fields.

In the happy early days of search, it seemed that the search was in some way different to the real world — a Wild West where the rules don’t apply. The search guys, such as Craigslist, happily carried ads for everything from escorts to prescription drugs available without prescription from outside the U.S. But things have changed as time and lawsuits have rolled by.

For example, search for “Viagra” on Google and you will find only the manufacture’s site and a prescription-only supplier.  Similarly, the query “escort service” yielded ads for online “dating sites,” but not ads for escort companies.

The other shoes continues to drop: At the end of last year, Google set aside half a billion dollars to avoid prosecution for allowing ads for prescription drugs available from outside the U.S. without prescription.

More recently Google has come under fire from the Senate for possibly facilitating sex tourism and human trafficking under the guise of ads for dating sites. Google understandably doth protest, but some such things will inevitably sneak through.  While the ads are mostly gone for these kinds of services, the actual search results are still packed full of sites that offer all these services.

The recent failure of the SOPA legislation, which attempted to make search engines the guardians of intellectual property, has shed an even stronger light on the whole topic of illegal content and how it’s exposed through search.

There are countries in the Middle East that hand filter results to limit its own people’s access to any kind of politically sensitive or adult content. Similarly, China has waged a proxy war with the search engines to the point where Google withdrew entirely from the market last year.

In a recent interview with the Daily Mail in the U.K., one of the founders of Google, Sergey Brin, lamented the increasing intervention by governments into what was formerly a geeks-only world of search. He also took a swipe at the more proprietary approaches employed by Facebook and Apple, hypothesizing that had Google behaved liked Facebook there wouldn’t have been a Google as we know it today.

It’s fascinating to watch the two worlds of regulation and self-interest collide. In today’s world it’s much harder to restrict information than it ever has been. Yet, if a government tries hard enough, recent examples show that it can be done. Alongside the political interests of governments lie the business interests of the online giants, that much centralized power tends to corrupt. It will be interesting to see if there comes a time when the interests of those formerly opposing forces overlap and reinforce to the detriment of us all.