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The Case For A Public Service Search Engine
by Angela Phillips

Transcript of a talk delivered at the Occupy Fleet Street: How to Democratise the British Media session of The World Transformed.

In his Alternative McTaggert lecture Jeremy Corbyn called for a new British Digital Corporation alongside the BBC: “to rival Netflix and Amazon, but also to harness data for the public good.” The BBC doesn’t need a BDC to rival Netflix. IPlayer was a major innovation in that field when it was established and it is regularly updated. The only thing it lacks is the huge sums of money available to Netflix for the creation of original drama.

However there very definitely is a role to be played by the public sector in the space of the Internet. A BDC tasked with establishing a new public service search engine could take us a very long way towards a media landscape that would be a lot less toxic than the one that has grown up courtesy of the US tech giants.

It is becoming increasingly clear that Governments need to take action over the rising power of the FANGS (Facebook, Amazon, Netflix and Google). Their way of operating has been to establish themselves as the largest player in each of their niche areas and then to simply gobble up every small company that produces anything that appears to threaten their monopoly. Wherever private monopolies are allowed to dominate they stifle innovation, threaten small companies and allow for price fixing which in turn harms individuals.

In the case of the media, monopolies will also in time, seek to shut out those voices which threaten their position. Indeed we can already see how the threat of Government action over “fake news” has impacted Facebook. The company has reacted to the threats of regulation by cutting back on the circulation of news and, in turn, cutting off the incomes of small media players that had depended on them. This has affected some of the more egregious fake news factories but it has also harmed small innovative publications that relied on advertising income via the platform.

In the case of the Internet platforms, the creation of these monopolies is particularly pernicious because they are a) international in scope and b) they depend for their vast incomes on advertising. The guiding principle of each of these platforms is the exploitation of personal data in order to improve personal targeting for ad sales.

Evidence from audience research demonstrates that, where editorial content is concerned, the more sensational and emotional the information generated the more likely it is to be shared. Sharing, in turn, maximises ad sales. So we are all buying into a system which positively encourages speed over authority, sensation over deliberation and conflict over understanding. Research from Australia has also demonstrated that sharing is most likely when audiences are encouraged to demonstrate their support for their own ‘team’ and to denigrate other teams.

Our entire media system is gradually moving onto a series of platforms that are geared up, not to providing information, but to encouraging us to join teams and shout at one another. Everything distributed on these platforms is forced to compete for audience attention in the same space, using similar tactics, so the quieter voices are automatically squeezed to the margins while the shouters take the stage. Popularity is the key factor and grabbing one of the first ten slots on a Google search requires: speed, ingenuity and sensationalism. Something that our tabloid press has already mastered but which sits uneasily with a thoughtful discussion about a sensitive subject.

So what is to be done? There are several possible policy responses:

  1. Breaking up monopolies using existing law
  2. Regulating monopolies so that they are judged as publishers
  3. Giving individuals control over their data
  4. Creating a publicly owned alternative to sit alongside existing services, in the mould of the BBC.

Breaking up monopolies would require international action as all these companies are international in scope. This is not impossible but would be difficult given the current state of international cooperation and the neo-Liberal assumptions of existing law in this area.

Regulation has been discussed and indeed proposals have been floated about treating platforms as publishers. This option is technologically flawed because it would require everything posted on line to be pre-vetted. This would slow everything to a crawl and seriously inhibit freedom of speech as platforms opt for safety and simply block anything that appears even a little bit out of the mainstream.

Giving individuals control of their data sounds attractive and indeed some very serious players are already involved in this space but this approach brings everything down to the level of the individual and leaves no opportunity for collective approaches or solutions that will be useful to everyone.

It is perfectly possible however to create a search engine that would have public service goals. It could be funded by advertising tied to product search (as Duck Duck Go already does). It would, like Google, be capable of learning from individual search histories but ranking would be built on public interest criteria. It would not replace existing systems but provide an alternative, and trusted, pathway which people would learn to rely on for access to credible sources of information.

Of course this organisation would need to be open, transparent and regulated. I have no doubt that there are large numbers of people working as developers who would positively enjoy the job of designing a system for organising information that will build in democratic values rather than selling socks.

This is the European solution. Europe created public service broadcasting whereas the USA relied on the market. The USA now has the most polarised news environment in the West. We are under no obligation to follow that road. It’s time for a European solution spearheaded by a British Labour government - in Europe.

Angela Phillips

Professor of Journalism at Goldsmiths, University of London and the co-author of Misunderstanding News Audiences, Seven Myths of the Social Media Era (2018) which considers the impact of news personalisation on media consumption and democracy.