Who will keep the keepers?

Cover of the IJLITomment on this blog that the Roman poet Juvenal asked Quis custodiet ipsos custodes? (who will watch the watchers?). Emily B Laidlaw, in her fascinating article, Private Power, Public Interest: An Examination of Search Engine Accountability, raises the parallel question of who will keep the keepers? In the vast new information age bequeathed to us by the internet and the world wide web, gatekeepers are those who enable – and control – our access to that information. At present, they are all private entities, and even if they wish to do no evil, there is no reason why they should actually do some good, let alone act in the public interest. Laidlaw’s analysis therefore focuses on the important issue, who will keep the (gate)keepers; here’s the abstract:

As information becomes a critical commodity in modern society, the issue is raised whether the entities that manage access to information, that are tools for public discourse and democracy, should be accountable to the public. The Internet has transformed how we communicate, and search engines have emerged as managers of information, organizing and categorizing content in a coherent, accessible manner thereby shaping the Internet user’s experience. This article examines whether search engines should have public interest obligations. In order to answer this question, this article first examines comparative public interest regulatory structures, and the growing importance of the Internet to public discourse. Then examined is how the algorithmic designs and manual manipulation of rankings by search engines affects the public interest without a sufficient accountability structure. Finally, the values necessary to a public interest framework are suggested.