The question of whether Google is a publisher of content or "merely" a search engine to point to content has arisen in Lab Soft News previously (see: Google as an Enabler and Protector of Global Information Exchange). Here's a quote from that note:
This [quoted] article begins to address some of the key questions that we are facing in the internet era such as the following: What is a publisher? What is a virtual publisher? What is content? What is a media company? Should virtual publishers be required to pay for content? How does protecting content and providing access to it differ from publishing it? What is censorship? To what extent do western democracies practice censorship? Is content search on a global basis more important than the creation of the original information? To what extent does open internet search destabilize totalitarian countries like China?
This same issue has arisen again and covered in a recent article in the NYT. This piece was prompted, in part, by an opinion paper posted on the web by Eugene Volokh who had been hired by Google to do so (see: Professor Makes the Case That Google Is a Publisher). Below is an excerpt from the NYT piece:
There are good reasons for Google to want to be considered a mere connector; like other Internet companies, it can beg off responsibility for what is transmitted by its users. That is the useful stance when it comes to rebutting claims of copyright infringement or libel. But when the issue is anticompetitive behavior..., Google has lately been emphasizing that it sees itself as a publisher, and it is appealing for different kinds of protections, in the realm of free speech...The company hired Eugene Volokh, an influential conservative blogger and a professor at the University of California, Los Angeles, to write a paper last month. In it, he argues that Google search results are protected speech....Competitors and some companies say Google’s search algorithms favor services owned by Google, a charge Google denies, but one that has drawn the attention of regulators in Europe and the United States....In September, Google’s chairman, Eric E. Schmidt, was called before a Senate antitrust panel to defend his company’s practices. The chairman of the subcommittee, Herb Kohl, Democrat of Wisconsin, put the question bluntly: “Is it possible for Google to be both an unbiased search engine and at the same time own a vast portfolio of Web-based products and services?” Mr. Schmidt’s response was measured. He noted that if Google stopped providing helpful search results people would start using other search engines. He also said that profit motives would not distort Google’s search results. “I’m not sure Google is a rational business trying to maximize its own profits,” he said....[The] message of [Volokh's] paper is that Google is a publisher and can favor its own material or even block another’s. If you don’t like it, tough luck. Try telling a newspaper what it should be printing. In one chapter, Mr. Volokh argues that some people “have allegedly come to expect that Google will choose search results based solely on supposedly ‘neutral’ computer algorithms, with no preference for Google’s thematic search results.” “But the critics cannot point to any such guarantees to customers,” he continued, “because Google makes no guarantees.”
It's pretty clear to me that Google wants it both ways: the "neutrality" of a search engine that is not responsible for search results and the free speech protection of a publisher that can favor its "vast portfolio of Web-based products and services" with its search algorithms. The company can avoid lawsuits using both models while at the same time optimizing its profits. I don't think that the regulators and politicians will allow it to enjoy the benefits of both sides of the argument.