German experts at a Berlin seminar this week argued that search engines need to be more regulated. They want companies such as Google, Microsoft, and Yahoo! to exercise editorial control over their search results and filter out sites with x-rated content or that glorify aggression.
"Mechanisms have to be developed to deal with illegal content and to protect children online," Marcel Machill, a lecturer in journalism at Germany's Leipzig and Dortmund universities, told the Search Enginge Workshop run by the Friedrich Ebert Foundation this week.
"Even if not targeted directly, browsing, surfing, or following suggestions from search engines may lead to material containing unwanted, troublesome, offensive, as well as surprising or amusing material. To be able to profit from this opportunity, while still allowing for the protection of children and for selective approaches to information gathering and communication, is one of the most important tasks in further developing the internet."
However, Norbert Schneider, director of the North Rhine Westphalia state media institute, believes a voluntary obligation to filter sites amounts to nothing more than a "weak regulation without any sanctions".
Machill is also clearly troubled by the strong market position of some of the search engines. Google already accounts for 90 per cent of German web searches. In the classic media sector this kind of concentration would be absurd, he says.
"It is important not to let this power develop unnoticed." Machill hopes that Germany will establish a public corporation to build its own search engine with "editorial responsibility" to compete with Google.
Google public relations head Rachel Whetstone retaliated this week that "we are neither newspaper nor a broadcasting company, all we do is apply an algorithm". She says Google doesn't want to find itself in a position where it has to decide on what people may or may not see. However, she also says Google adheres to local laws when determining what results appear. ®