Google Search prioritises https: why this has nothing to do with network neutrality

I’ve seen on Twitter some criticism raised against Google’s announcement to give a bit more weight to websites with https. The core of the argument is not entirely clear, but it takes various forms similar to:

You can’t applaud Google’s decision and be mad for what carriers do against network neutrality at the same time

But actually: yes, I can.

I think Google’s decision is the right one, because even though I’m far from satisfied with the way the whole CA circus runs, it’s still better to have https than no encrypted traffic at all.

But why has this nothing to do with network neutrality? It’s simple. Because the Google search engine is not a network operator nor an internet access provider! It does not even come close, fundamentally these are entirely different activities…

Just look at how we use each of them:

When I “use” what my internet access providers provides to me: I connect my laptop to the internet; my web browser makes requests that the network operator carries back and forth for me; my web browser renders a web page; or I write an email and the network operator connects me to my email server to carry my email to it so that my email server can actually send it.

Notice something: the activity of the internet access provider is entirely generic! My basic interaction with them is not between me and them, but between the machines and software I use and their machines.1

Now let’s analyse how I use Google: I write a search query, Google analyses it and gives me back an answer, a list of results. Then I choose to click on a link.

To sum it up, while I make automated requests to my ISP, I ask a human-edited question to my search engine.

These are so fundamentally different activities that it makes absolutely no sense to put search engines issues and network neutrality issues in the same basket!

Every step of the way from the moment I enter “Search” and the moment a list of results is displayed to me is an entirely edited process, with complex algorithms etc. There’s nothing neutral, ever, in a search engine! (The fact that it is automated is entirely irrelevant and is purely a question of implementation.)

If you are not convinced, consider this:

  • How do we measure a good ISP? Certainly not by the “relevance” of their answers; their answer is not relevant, it’s either true or false! Any tinkering with the process is exactly the opposite of what I want them to provide, which is fast, reliable, and predictable internet connections.

    On the other hand, you measure a good search engine by how relevant the results are to you.

  • If I switch from one internet access provider to the next, for instance because I commute from home to an office or a cafĂ©, I do expect the results to the queries my software makes to be exactly the same.

    However that’s absolutely not true if I change one search engine for another. The reason I choose to use one or another probably means that I actually expect different results! (Otherwise, why change? I would probably only use the one that’s faster and has a better user interface.)

And finally that’s the last big difference. An ISP is part of the infrastructure around me. In some cases it’s entirely possible that I don’t have the choice of which provider is going to provide internet access to me.

However, that’s entirely false for search engines. And in fact, in the last three years I have moved away from using Google to DuckDuckGo, and I also have installed YaCy and lately, Searx on my own servers.

So, please, if you’re unhappy for some weird reason about Google’s change to give a bit more weight to https, do not make other people confused with the issue of network neutrality.

  1. Which does not mean that it’s not important! It is fundamentally important that they do it in a way that safeguards our freedom of expression and privacy – which is why I support do-it-yourself ISPs. If you’re looking for one near you, check out this map. ↩