Why Google Is Not A Search Engine But An Investigative News Agency, And Why That Matters

Google has long been the number one “search engine”. Perhaps that’s the entirely wrong way to think about the service, leading to a number of unintended and bad legal consequences. The term “search engine” was a word made up on the spot in the dotcom era, after all. The job Google does has been considered to have a different job title altogether since way back.

When Google was launched, that was in the middle of the dotcom boom – and everybody was calling themselves something that wasn’t a traditional analog job title, just to underscore how “new”, “digital” and “dotcom” everybody was. And to some extent, what Google did was new – but not in character, just in execution, equipment, and efficiency. To underscore its efficiency in searching the world for facts related to a topic, Google was called a “search engine”.

What Google does is to find tons of material related to a specific subject, judge its relevance, and present a report on the subject. We have had professionals for centuries who do exactly this. We call them investigative reporters.

You don’t call a car something radically different than “car” just because it goes much, much faster and cheaper than the previous generation of cars. A next-generation car may be attractive, full of want, and desirable, but it’s still a car. In the same way, what Google is doing is still investigative journalism: they are searching the world for everything that people say or write that is related to a specific topic, then presenting a report on it. The fact that the journalism in question is blazingly fast – milliseconds instead of weeks – does not factor into the fundamental type of work that is performed.

The reason this is important is that the term “journalism” has a long-established legal standing in law, whereas any job title invented on the spot in the dotcom bubble hasn’t. Constitutional protection for the journalistic activity that Google is performing date as far back as 1766, far predating the dotcom bubble (and electricity, for that matter).

This is relevant as certain obsolete industries have started to demand that Google change their “search results” – more accurately described as journalistic findings – to present a distorted view of reality rather than the journalistic truth. More precisely, the copyright industry is demanding of Google that just because a lot of people are talking about sharing culture and knowledge in violation of their monopolies, that doesn’t mean that Google should be allowed to accurately report on that fact, because doing so shows the copyright industry as incompetent.

This needs to be seen in the light of Google doing investigative journalism.

When the copyright industry is demanding that Google censors “search results” from their investigative reports, they are demanding that an investigative news agency alter their journalistic findings because those findings of fact happen to be starkly embarrassing to the copyright industry. Further, the copyright industry is also demanding that the news agency should lie to the public about what the world actually looks like.

That shows just how obscenely repulsive the copyright industry’s behavior is. Nobody would dare dream of asking an investigative reporter to alter their journalistic findings just because the result of those findings happens to be inconvenient for a particular industry, by means of putting its incompetence out into the sunlight. Well, nobody except the copyright industry, anyway.

Rick Falkvinge

Rick is the founder of the first Pirate Party and a low-altitude motorcycle pilot. He lives on Alexanderplatz in Berlin, Germany, roasts his own coffee, and as of right now (2019-2020) is taking a little break.


  1. Pieter

    I suspect investigative reporters are “asked” to alter their journalistic findings quite regularly by stakeholders. Look at the shit storm surrounding the US diplomatic cable leaks; I’m sure those journalists were quite heavily leaned on. The difference is that we recognize it as anti-democratic practice.

  2. Pau

    Also is a font source, don’t you? #lulz

  3. Björn Persson

    I think it will be hard to convince judges that a list of Google hits is equivalent to a report in a newspaper. The fact that Google’s search results are biased towards what they think the user will like probably doesn’t help.

    1. Rick Falkvinge

      Well, there’s not much difference from how an investigative reporter tailors the report based on previous experience from working with the editor who gave the assignment, is there?

      1. Steve B.

        Quite so! This is a very interesting argument and I’d like to see it extended and passed on (which I shall try myself of course).

        Not only because of the implications regarding protection for Google, but also because it implies a certain standard of work, which Goggle should aim to maintain in order to keep that protection. I wonder what would be Google’s own stance to this.

  4. Jonathan

    I usually agree with you, but I’m not sure I do in this case.

    Using your line of argument one might claim that , say, a miner and a (analog) librarian does the same thing: they look for certain atoms and sorts them according to a predefined criteria. Still, I would claim that a library and a mine are two completely different things and there might be laws and practices that makes sense to one and not the other?

  5. Viktor

    I think that journalism implies some degree more curation of the content than what Google does, and a much more proactive stance of what to display. If they would show a suggested search or even better a summary of some probably good websites before you search then it might be close to journalism. And investigative journalism implies a much more active stance than what Google does and also going much beyond what is readily available. In short, an investigative reporter needs to create material and analysis, not just report what there is.

    In my mind Google Search is much more like a librarian than a journalist. A librarian assists in find information from a vast body of knowledge and can to some extent help evaluate the sources. A librarian might also suggest related topics or what you might like based on what you ask for.

  6. Ano Nymous

    “Nobody would dare dream of asking an investigative reporter to alter their journalistic findings just because the result of those findings happens to be inconvenient for a particular industry, by means of putting its incompetence out into the sunlight.”

    Not for an industry, but for a government it happens regularly. Even ones that call themself democratic, unfortunately.

    Also, comparing Google to investigative reporters, I think working as a spy is somewhat rare amongst investigative reporters.

    I left Google a few years ago. Now I only use it as a last resort. Normally I use DuckDuckGo.

    1. spiralofhope

      Yes, do stop using Google in preference of DuckDuckGo.

      Google claimed to not be evil, and unsurprisingly proved to be quite Evil.

      DuckDuckGo claims to not be evil.

      Hey wait.

      1. tamay

        P1: You are a lunatic.
        P2: I am perfectly sane.
        P1: That’s what all lunatics say. This proves you are one. Let’s lock you up.

  7. sebtanic

    A journalist friend told me once that when you work for a newspaper, you aren’t supposed to write the truth. You’re supposed to write what befits your employer’s agenda.

  8. Anonymous

    I’m not convinced, Rick.
    Is a faster carriage still a carriage? Or is it a car? Sure, the engine changed, swapping the horse by a internal combustion engine, but so did you swap the paper and the database.

    I’m all for unbiased search results, but I think legislation should consider a search engine on it’s own merits. And while we’re at it, why don’t we require the ranking criteria to be public, eh?

    1. harveyed

      A faster carriage is a crime, it clearly infringes on the “legal rights” of the horse-breeding business. You wouldn’t download a horse. 🙂

      1. Anyone

        you better have that red flag ready and wave it

  9. Sten
  10. LeChuck

    So what?

    Bitcoin also is and endless recording of all transactions…

Comments are closed.