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Rick Santorum wants his Google problem fixed. Can Google shrug him off?

Google says the years-old problem Rick Santorum has had is not theirs to fix. But questions remain: Who is responsible for online reputations? And is Google a company or a public utility?

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But the ability to smear a public figure on such a broad platform troubles Nicholas Johnson, a former FCC commissioner and now professor of law at the University of Iowa.

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“This is yet another example of the growing lack of civility in our civil discourse that ranges from the offensive to the mean-spirited and even dangerous,” he says.

Not everyone can handle the kind of nastiness that the anonymity of the Internet permits, he says, pointing for instance to a teen suicide caused by Internet bullying. But free speech is protected by the First Amendment, he notes, “and this falls into that category.”

However, Google’s growing influence has led many to suggest that new rules apply. “I have come to regard Google as more of a public utility,” says Matthew Crenson, professor emeritus in political science at Johns Hopkins University.

The search engine is so dominant, he notes, adding, “It is no longer the upstart, private little company trying to compete.” Rather, he says, it is the market standard, “almost a monopoly, and a public utility has to meet certain minimum standards.” Radio and television stations have limits on the material they can air, he notes, adding, “or they can have their licenses revoked.”

This push for accountability flies directly in the face of those who want the Internet to remain free and open, he notes, but suggests there are many other methods from the Wikipedia model of peer-editing of content to government subsidies to encourage more competition in the Web search industry.

A more balanced approach to such a dominant player makes sense, says Mark Tatge, a professor of journalism at DePauw University in Indiana.

“Google has gotten too big,” he says, “the playing field needs to be leveled in some way.”

Public figures need to have thick skins, he says, adding, “I have no sympathy for politicians crying over what people say about them.”

But, he notes, “we know that Google’s business model is based on selling advertising, it is not some big nonprofit,” so, he asks, how does letting it get this big with no accountability benefit everyone? “There has to be some happy medium,” he adds.

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