Once, the leading sources to which people turned for useful information were newspapers, guidebooks, and encyclopedias. Today, these sources also include search engine results, which people use (along with other sources) to learn about news, local institutions, products, services, and many other matters. Then and now, the First Amendment has protected all these forms of speech from government attempts to regulate what they present or how they present it. And this First Amendment protection has applied even when the regulations were motivated by a concern about what some people see as “fairness.”
Google, Microsoft’s Bing, Yahoo! Search, and other search engines are speakers. First, they sometimes convey information that the search engine company has itself prepared or compiled (such as information about places appearing in Google Places). Second, they direct users to material created by others, by referencing the titles of Web pages that the search engines judge to be most responsive to the query, coupled with short excerpts from each page. Such reporting about others’ speech is itself constitutionally protected speech.
Third, and most valuably, search engines select and sort the results in a way that is aimed at giving users what the search engine companies see as the most helpful and useful information. (That is how each search engine company tries to keep users coming back to it rather than to its competitors.) This selection and sorting is a mix of science and art: It uses sophisticated computerized algorithms, but those algorithms themselves inherently incorporate the search engine company engineers’ judgments about what material users are most likely to find responsive to their queries.
In this respect, each search engine’s editorial judgment is much like many other familiar editorial judgments made by newspapers, guidebooks, and Web sites. All these speakers must decide: Out of the thousands of possible items that could be included, which to include, and how to arrange those that are included? Such editorial judgments may differ in certain ways: For example, a newspaper also includes the materials that its editors have selected and arranged, while the speech of DrudgeReport.com or a search engine consists almost entirely of the selected and arranged links to others’ material. But the judgments are all, at their core, editorial judgments about what users are likely to find interesting and valuable. And all these exercises of editorial judgment are fully protected by the First Amendment.