Internet Regulation and Design: A View from the Front Lines

author: Alan Davidson, Google, Inc.
published: Sept. 16, 2013,   recorded: May 2006,   views: 1955

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Google Google’s Alan Davidson and you won’t locate him readily in his current post as the search giant’s recently installed point man in Washington. Davidson keeps a low profile, at least online, but he is a presence in those circles shaping internet policy.

With a background in computer science, Davidson is an unabashed enthusiast of Google’s core mission: search. “A complex algorithm is our secret sauce,” says Davidson, for producing answers in 1/5th of a second. “As an engineer who’s fallen from grace, I marvel at it,” he says. He’s protective of the world’s largest information index --tens of billions of web pages -- and in particular, the “long tail” of a search index: the many individual, quirky sites that draw interest from relatively few users. “20% of searches that we see in a given month are those we’ve never seen before,” he says. “I find this heartwarming. People are weird and want to see strange stuff.”

Embracing the long tail figures large in Google’s “policy space.” Helping people access information and innovate requires vigilance, believes Davidson. Politicians around the world are pushing for internet regulations to control content. Davidson approves removal of certain kinds of “vile, evil” content from search indexes, like child pornography sites. But pressure on internet services like Google to act as policemen must be resisted. He describes the “hard case” of China,” which demands Google provide a filter for queries the government deems threatening. “We angst about it, but executives feel being there is better for openness than not being there.”

Other pressing issues for Davidson include net neutrality, the attempt to retain uniform fees for data transmission in the face of demands by broadband and DSL line owners to be paid more for higher speed lines. Davidson sees this demand leading to a two-tier internet, one that discriminates economically against the next MySpace or YouTube. Admits Davidson, “As a lobbyist, we’re getting our butts kicked in Washington.”

There’s also the thorny problem of intellectual property raised by Google’s book search: a “modest project….to digitize all books in all languages and create a virtual card catalog.” Davidson is convinced that Google is not violating copyright law, and is actually helping authors and publishers sell more books.

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