Private Power, Public Interest: An Examination of Search Engine Accountability

46 Pages Posted: 12 Mar 2009 Last revised: 1 Oct 2015

See all articles by Emily Laidlaw

Emily Laidlaw

University of Calgary, Faculty of Law

Date Written: Spring 2009


As information becomes a critical commodity in modern society, the issue is raised whether the entities that manage access to information, that are tools for public discourse and democracy, should be accountable to the public. The Internet has transformed how we communicate, and search engines have emerged as managers of information, organizing and categorizing content in a coherent, accessible manner thereby shaping the Internet user's experience. This article examines whether search engines should have public interest obligations. In order to answer this question, this article first examines comparative public interest regulatory structures, and the growing importance of the Internet to public discourse. Then examined is how the algorithmic designs and manual manipulation of rankings by search engines affects the public interest without a sufficient accountability structure. Finally, the values necessary to a public interest framework are suggested.

Suggested Citation

Laidlaw, Emily, Private Power, Public Interest: An Examination of Search Engine Accountability (Spring 2009). International Journal of Law and Information Technology, Vol. 17, Issue 1, pp. 113-145, 2009. Available at SSRN: or

Emily Laidlaw (Contact Author)

University of Calgary, Faculty of Law ( email )

Murray Fraser Hall
2500 University Dr. N.W.
Calgary, Alberta T2N 1N4

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