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EDITORIAL: President Donald Trump hints he wants to regulate search engines

President Donald Trump’s distaste for “fake news” has now led him to set his sights on Google. But let’s hope Mr. Trump’s latest social-media salvo is just another impulsive Twitter barrage rather than a misguided policy proposal.

On Tuesday morning, the president put his thumbs to work. “Google search results for ‘Trump News’ shows only the viewing/reporting of Fake News Media,” he tweeted. “In other words, they have it RIGGED, for me &others, so that almost all stores &news is BAD.”

He went on: “96% of results on ‘Trump News’ are from National-Left-Wing Media, very dangerous. Google &others are suppressing voices of Conservatives and hiding information and news that is good. They are controlling what we can &cannot see. This is very serious situation — will be addressed!”

Politico noted that reporters later asked Trump adviser Larry Kudlow whether the president’s tweet storm indicated the White House was considering “some form of regulation for Google.” Mr. Kudlow replied, “We’ll let you know. We’re taking a look at it.”

It’s worth noting that the appetite to sic the federal bureaucracy on the Tech Titans is pervasive on both sides of the aisle, particularly given recent high-profile incidents involving data breaches and privacy concerns. But any effort to give Washington bureaucrats the power to limit online content or dictate how that content is offered would represent an attack on the Bill of Rights.

As UCLA law professor Eugene Volokh argued back in 2012, internet search engines perform essentially the same function as “newspapers, guidebooks and encyclopedias” in how they provide information to consumers. Just as editors make judgments about coverage and news value, search engine algorithms are designed to serve similar functions for the benefit of users.

“Search engines,” Mr. Volokh wrote, “are speakers. First, they sometimes convey information that the search engine company has itself prepared or compiled. … Second, they direct users to material created by others. … Such reporting about others’ speech is itself constitutionally protected speech.”

In addition, judgments inherent in search engines “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.”

Google and other search engines may indeed lean to the left in how they rank and arrange their offerings. If Mr. Trump feels the need to be critical of that, fine. But the president and administration officials — who have made strides in clearing federal red tape — should think long and hard about proposing legislation to give the federal government input into how search engines present information. That’s an awful and dangerous idea and has no chance of passing constitutional muster.

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