A publicly funded search engine?

Given that search engines are such a fundamental part of people’s lives these days, should we have a publicly funded search engine? Similar to the way the BBC is funded? Despite the things which go wrong at the BBC, it is still one of the most trusted news organisations in the world today, and the way it is funded plays a central role. The other fantastic thing about the BBC is that there are no ads in either its radio or TV channels (except ads for other programmes on the BBC).

Advantages of a publicly funded search engine are:

  • Advertising free! Such a search engine will not have to rely on advertising revenues to sustain itself. Which means privacy issues are easier to tackle. They will not disappear of course. Law enforcement agencies always will have access to search logs.
  • Not having to store search history to “personalise” search means fewer resources will be required to maintain this search engine
  • Pooling of resources. “Publicly funded search engines” from various countries could collaborate so that a single search engine is maintained which makes it cheaper for everyone involved.
  • Focussed search. Rather than index every bit of crap on the internet, such a search engine can focus on indexing only on “useful” domains. This would bring back the art of curation to search.
  • The above feature would automatically lead to a “family friendly” search function by excluding pornographic sites from the indexing process. No more need for “safe search” from commercial search engines.
  • Self sufficiency. Imagine a world where the US is in conflict with all other nations. What happens to the rest of us if Google and Microsoft shut off access to their search engines?

Disadvantages of this approach:

  • There is the danger of becoming a bureaucratic organisation if it didn’t have to innovate to survive, but this is a solvable problem. The BBC is kept in check and held accountable by various entities. A similar approach could be taken. Despite high profile failures, the BBC does successfully keep up with trends in technology with the iPlayer as a good example.
  • Danger of censorship by government. It is possible that government agencies might try to control the search engine function, thereby leading to censorship. This could be mitigated by making sure that the organisation is set up in a way which minimises this possibility. Commercial search engines are not immune to this threat. Google’s experience in China shows us that if a government really wanted to censor the Internet, it finds a way.
  • Financial viability. Depending on how much is required to build and maintain a search engine, the burden on the citizens of a country will vary. Some countries might not even be able to fund such a public service. Such countries will have to rely on their allies for their search service. This is not as bad as it sounds. Many small countries do not have an effective army to defend themselves, and rely on their allies to protect them from invasion. This would be no different.

The likes of Google, Yahoo and Microsoft have done an amazing job so far in building up the Internet to what it is today. It is time though for countries to think about self sufficiency in something as fundamental to people’s lives as “search”. My economics professors would probably frown upon my notion of “self sufficiency” and instead point to the concept of comparative advantage which states that each country should do what it does best to maximise aggregate output. I wholeheartedly disagree with this!

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