Update on the Quaero Forum: the politics of search engines, 1

The forum in Amsterdam is asking the following key questions:

• What are the politics of the structure and image of search engines and their technologies?

• To what extent have search engines like Google, which started from the ideal of access to information, become the modus operandi of political bias? Can we envisage scenarios for the search engine as a public domain institution?

• What kind of hierarchy (if any) should be implemented when deciding what should go into a search engine’s database, and what is left out?

• Can contemporary web practices tackle the conventional static models used to archive and present (institutional) concepts of cultural heritage and democracy?

• Collaborative and participatory methods are increasingly placing the Demos as the force that structures information. Can we work towards a ‘politics of code & categorization’ that allows plural interpretations of data to coexist and enrich each other?

• How can concepts of digital and networked European cultural heritage reflect the political and social issues related to Europe’s changing borders?

Erik Borra of Open Search has a detailed account of the proceedings.

His own presentation serves as a good summary of why the issue is an important one, politically, and why it is difficult to construct an alternative:

the problem with the current search engines is, according to Open-Search: because the control over information is central and nobody can look into their algorithms or decisions, it is susceptible to censorship, manipulation and profiling. Getting out the central part and making it open would solve a lot of problems. We believe this is possible through an open source p2p project. Of course there are a lot of challenges as well: spam, efficient query propagation, etcetera, but most of all we haven’t had time to build a community and we do not have the time nor money to put a lot of continued effort in the development of Open-Search.”

Michael Zimmer, who gave a presentation there (7 MB), after explaining how Google’s quest to know everything is overcoming the privacy protection through obscurity, proposes a set of eight privacy demands:

Quaero must be designed in such a way as to prevent any substantive response to a civil or criminal subpoena of user activity

Quaero must be designed so IP addresses and cookies cannot be associated with particular users or accounts

Query traffic must be encrypted to prevent ‘man in the middle’ monitoring

Quaero must provide transparency in the data it collects about users, how it is used, who uses it, and how long it is retained

Quaero must not engage in personalized or behaviorally-targeted advertising

Quaero must take steps to remove or obscure personally-identifiable images (faces, license plates, etc) from its searchable index

Quaero must provide individuals the ability to remove or obscure personally-identifiable data from its searchable index

Quaero must provide users the ability to view, edit, and delete any search history data associated with their account.

Erik Borra’s review reproduces an account of the closing of the conference, which summarizes a possible consensus:

The conference closed on a shockingly optimistic and unified note […] Why such a great note? Likely because of three crucial interventions that resulted in the sense of a politics around P2P/open search, a politics that would assert the failures and limits of a search (foregoing the knowledge claims of a god/subject supposed to know and thus attempting to divert transferential investments into authority) engine. This could seem counter-intuitive. Who wants a search engine that doesn’t claim to be reliable, thorough, and objective? Perhaps those who recognize that there is no such search engine and take responsibility for this limited, partial, and shared knowledge. The three interventions:
Florian Schneider directly politicized open search. It had been implicit in the discussion, but he made it explicit and political. He also used the term exodus as a kind of movement constitutive of the political.

Daniel van der Velden rendered exodus as more of a decision, and thus as requiring a kind of awareness or even consciousness (which makes the projects demonstrating the failures and interventions of google–which doesn’t live up to its anti-evil ideals–all the more important).

For me, these two ideas seemed to conflict. There is hardly an exodus from google, rather the opposite–the problem is the way people flock to it, rely on it–like Wal-Mart and McDonalds.

But Florian Cramer traversed this dilemma, refused the false choice–and gave a rousing speech that all agreed marked an appropriate end point for this phase of the conversation. So, he said that exodus is a metaphor, with limits, and that exodus can’t mean here anything like a kind of neo-luddite movement/moment. And, he refused the demand for an image. More specifically, he said that the very question of ‘what would a European search engine look like’ should be eliminated (for good techie reasons involved API, available public interface). There isn’t one answer, one image, one model.

This fits well with the theme of the imaginary that I took from the conference. It accepts neither the imaginary, nor calls for a symbolic (name, authority, law). It traverses these with a different kind of accountability (clearly not quite ready for release, but maybe soon in beta). Maybe this is something like an act in information politics.

And, if information is value and search engines add, create, and arrange value, what sort of value would P2P search engines create?”

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