Democratic Senator Wants Neutrality Rules For Big Tech

Google, Facebook and Amazon should have to follow the same net neutrality principles as broadband providers, according to Senator Al Franken (D-Minnesota).

"As tech giants become a new kind of internet gatekeeper, I believe the same basic principles of net neutrality should apply here: no one company should have the power to pick and choose which content reaches consumers and which doesn’t," Franken wrote this week in The Guardian. "And Facebook, Google, and Amazon -- like ISPs -- should be 'neutral' in their treatment of the flow of lawful information and commerce on their platforms."

The Federal Communications Commission's 2015 net neutrality rules prohibit Internet access providers from discriminating against particular content by blocking or throttling traffic, among other restrictions.

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Franken, who supports those rules for broadband providers, contends that large tech companies are in a similar position to control information available to consumers. "As the wealth of information available on the internet has grown, big tech has taken it upon itself to sort through all the viewpoints, news, and entertainment, and decide for us what we should read, watch, buy, or even how we should engage in civil society," he writes. "And they’re doing it all under the shadow of complicated algorithms that make little sense to either the content creators whose livelihood depends on them or the users whose everyday decisions they’re controlling."

Franken isn't the first to suggest imposing "neutrality" regulations on tech companies. For years, some observers have argued that search engines like Google should be required to return "neutral" results.

Many ISPs also contended that it was unfair to subject them to neutrality rules while leaving companies like Google free to decide which results to display. For instance, Verizon argued in 2012 court papers that the FCC's former open Internet order (a weaker version of the 2015 net neutrality rules) was "under-inclusive" because it applied only to broadband access companies and not search portals, app store operators and "other participants in the Internet ecosystem."

But other observers say it doesn't make sense to apply the same principles to Internet access providers as to search engines, social networking services or other companies that offer content. Many customers only have a choice of one or two Internet access providers, but have a variety of options for finding online content. Also, some observers argue that a concept like "search neutrality" is a contradiction in terms, given that there doesn't appear to be a "neutral" method for determining which results will be relevant to users.

"The case for search neutrality is too muddled to be convincing," Cornell law school professor James Grimmelmann argued in a 2011 essay. "Search is inherently subjective: it always involves guessing the diverse and unknown intentions of users."

Observers also say that companies like Google have free speech rights to decide what information to display to users. Google has already defeated several lawsuits by companies that attempted to challenge the search results as unfair. Most recently, U.S. District Court Judge Paul Magnuson in the Middle District of Florida ruled that Google has a free speech right to decide which search results to display.

"Google’s actions in formulating rankings for its search engine and in determining whether certain websites are contrary to Google’s guidelines and thereby subject to removal are the same as decisions by a newspaper editor regarding which content to publish, which article belongs on the front page, and which article is unworthy of publication," Magnuson wrote in a February ruling that dismissed a lawsuit by search optimization company e-ventures Worldwide, which claimed its sites were wrongly removed from search results.

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