Now that the Memorial Day weekend is behind us, the election year mudslinging will undoubtedly begin to ramp up. For me, this is always an amusing and disheartening phenomenon of political life in the United States – judging the worthiness of an individual based on either juicy speculation or on the defamation of the rival’s character. This style of politics leads nicely into a discussion of the issue of legal liability, defamation, and the nature of modern news collection and distribution on the Internet. With more and more people turning to the online versions of established newspapers and to news clipping services like Google News, the issue of journalistic ethics and news accuracy becomes crucial for the successful transition towards a paperless society. How society deals with defamation and legal liability regarding the accuracy of the online news is not a trifle subject. Indeed, it is a first step towards reversing the clichéd “don’t trust anything you read on the Internet” caveat that can no longer remain the acceptable standard. Too many important decisions are being made solely on the basis of online media to allow this standard to remain in place.

Since many people choose to receive their online news from Google News, the issue of Google’s IPO also comes into the picture, since it will be impacted by the legal situation that Google finds itself in, namely, its enviable status as a “hosting service” of news content, rather than as an “editor” or “publisher” of news content. This is a very important legal distinction, since it allows Google to remain immune from the traditional liability risks experienced by older publishers of news media. Why is this a particular problem during a campaign year? Well, for example, what would happen if Google decided to change its search results ranking methodology away from an impersonal algorithm and instead relied on some more human editorial process to select which order certain news is presented on the results page of a search?

It seems unlikely that this human driven methodology could work across all searches, but it could be selectively applied to various searches, perhaps political in nature. I doubt anyone outside Google would even notice, and if the concern was voiced, it might easily be caulked up to Internet rumor, especially during election season. For example, if a citizen typed in a search term for health care reform, and Google decided it wanted to influence which site appeared first in the list, that action might influence the information received by the general public, and therefore, might sway the outcome of the election because of votes cast in one direction and not the other. This might seem far-fetched, but Internet news sites remain vulnerable to the same biases that have long plagued traditional news providers – the difference with online news biases is that not only does content come into the picture, but so do search result rankings. Consumers of the news need to remember to evaluate the content of the news provided on the Internet both for inherent biases, but also for the biases associated with the location of the information in comparison with other sources.

One group of individuals who are committed to reducing the potential damage caused by search result ranking biases is the development team at These people are the advocates of an open source search engine, individuals determined to keep the process of Internet searching out of commercial hands, or at least offering a non-commercial alternative that supplements what is available on the market. They are the public-access channel of the Internet news scene.

What are the pros and cons of the open source approach? Well, an open source search engine would allow for a less biased presentation of news articles in any search results page, but this whole process still relies on the validity of the news found on the Internet. And as the news shifts more and more online, how do we, the consumers of news, verify the online news? Who is going to do the actual reporting once the balance shifts to the online news providers?

Just like television, what we view on the Internet is at first glance “free”, but in actuality, we the consumers pay the often times overlooked price of “bias” in the news we are presented with in any medium, be it television or the Internet. This reality emphasizes the power of using Internet news sources to compliment standard news sources, rather than replace them.