Human Rights in the Digital Era

Human Rights and Search Engines

Emily Laidlaw (UEA/LSE) explores the possible threats to human rights online posed by search engines

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“The Human Rights Significance of Search Engine Rankings” – Emily Laidlaw, University of East Anglia/ LSE

There are approximately 348 million websites available on the Internet.  Search engines sort through the mess and select the information to bring to our attention.  In so doing, they determine the information on the Internet that is visible.  Thus it is not surprising that the most viewed websites on the Internet tend to be search engines.  As a result, they are macro-gatekeepers in the online environment, because by controlling what does and does not appear on search results and how high on the results they appear they control participation in discourse online.  While the fact that search engines impact freedom of expression is clear from the outset, the exact nature of this impact and what this then means concerning their legal responsibilities is more problematic when examined against the backdrop of traditional human rights laws.  The issue comes down to one of characterization: are search results simply the search engine’s marketing tool – their private forum for speech? Or are search engines critical communication tools for making any sensible use of the Internet?

At the moment, there are few legal and normative frameworks that regulate the free speech impact of search engine rankings.  The result is that search results are effectively removed from free speech scrutiny.  This paper will examine the regulatory lacuna in which they operate and show that the tripping point in attempting to craft laws to apply to search results is in defining what speech and whose speech we are talking.  The potential rights engaged under traditional approaches to free speech are the right of the users to receive information, the rights of content providers to be listed on the rankings, and the rights of the search providers to publicly air their opinions on the importance of websites.  This paper will examine the limitations of these approaches and show the need for a sui generis treatment of search engines, arguing that the free speech right engaged by search engines is accessibility of information.  The responsibility that should flow from this, it will be shown, is management of the forum in a fair, open and proportionate manner.


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