On search neutrality

Author: Sol

Abe Lederman, founder and president of Deep Web Technologies and sponsor of this blog, wrote an article at the Deep Web Technologies blog: Preparing for ALA Panel and Federated Search Neutrality. Abe discovered this article at beerbrarian about the problem of net neutrality in federated search.

For those of you not familiar with net neutrality, Wikipedia explains it:

Network neutrality (also net neutrality, Internet neutrality) is a principle which advocates no restrictions by Internet service providers or governments on consumers’ access to networks that participate in the internet. Specifically, network neutrality would prevent restrictions on content, sites, platforms, the kinds of equipment that may be attached, or the modes of communication.
. . .
Neutrality proponents claim that telecom companies seek to impose a tiered service model in order to control the pipeline and thereby remove competition, create artificial scarcity, and oblige subscribers to buy their otherwise uncompetitive services. Many believe net neutrality to be primarily important as a preservation of current freedoms. Vinton Cerf, considered a “father of the Internet” and co-inventor of the Internet Protocol, Tim Berners-Lee, creator of the Web, and many others have spoken out in favor of network neutrality.

In the net neutrality battle, consumers worry about telecom companies unfairly biasing the delivery of some content (that which they have business interest in biasing) over the content of others. Add search to the equation and what you get are concerns over whether your search results are sorted by relevance or by the business needs of the search engine company.

The beerbrarian article raises the concern that content provided by federated search providers could be biased. I think beerbrarian is missing an important point; discovery services are not federated search. Discovery services build an index of the content they provide access to. Federated search doesn’t. Read this for a solid introduction to discovery services. The distinction between the two is important in this conversation because, in the discovery services model there is much more potential for abuse (based on whose content they’re indexing) than with federated search. Beerbrarian states:

Increasingly, the vendors that offer these services are the ones that also offer content, such as databases that contain articles and other documents. EBSCO’s Integrated Search (EHIS) and ProQuest’s relationship with Serials Solutions, developers of Summon, should have librarians and library administrators on edge because of the potential for conflicts of interest. Summon could funnel users to ProQuest’s content at the expense of content from other vendors. Summon has repeatedly stated that it is vendor neutral as libraries can purchase it without any ProQuest content. Will EHIS deliver neutral content, or content that favors EBSCO products?

The concern is not hypothetical. I’ve written a lot about discovery services. If you have any doubt that it’s a problem when the company giving you search access is the same company that owns the content (or has a close relationship with the content owner) then read my article, What a mess!, for some unpleasant news.

My radar (Google Alerts) pointed me this morning to this article by Barbara Quint at Information Today. My first response to “EBSCO Exclusives Trigger Turmoil” was “What a mess!” Quint shares the saga of EBSCO and Gale lobbing volleys at each other during the ALA Midwinter meeting. EBSCO announces new acquisitions that were “exclusive to EBSCO for the library ‘marketspace.’” Major competitor Gale issued a letter to the library community urging “librarians to get involved in opposing publishers granting exclusives, at least to EBSCO.” Read Quint’s article for all the gory details.

I also raised the flag about a different but related problem, a library offering search access to sources that the service provider picks rather than the ones the library deems most important to their patrons.

Getting back to the distinction between discovery services and federated search, why is there more risk of violating search neutrality in the former and much less so in the latter? In the discovery system model the library hands over control of what sources are available to a third-party. In developing a federated search solution the library gets to decide which sources to make available. Depending on the federated search vendor, the library could decide to bias the results from some sources over others but that biasing is very apparent to them because they chose to weigh results more highly from one or more sources. And, if the library chooses a federated search vendor that has no conflict-of-interest relationships with any vendors then even better.

If you’re interested in the topic of search neutrality, or just want to meet Abe, and you’re going to be at ALA later this month, be sure to attend the panel he’s going to be talking at:

On Sunday, June 26th at the ALA Summer National Conference in New Orleans [Abe will] be speaking on a panel on The Age of Discovery: Understanding Discovery Services, Federated Search, and Web scale. You can be assured that this is one topic that I will be discussing in my presentation.

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This entry was posted on Wednesday, June 1st, 2011 at 12:29 pm and is filed under viewpoints. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or TrackBack URI from your own site.

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