It is time for the nation to formulate and pass laws upholding “Internet neutrality” in the wake of the recent revelation that a government agency bought “keyword advertising” on search engines to promote pro-nuclear energy messages, Academia Sinica associate research fellow Huang Kuo-chang (黃國昌) said.
Huang was referring to the Ministry of Economic Affairs’s Bureau of Energy, which said on Tuesday it had spent NT$100,000 buying keyword advertising on popular search engines, linking to a total of 92 keywords — including 29 names of people who often spoke publicly about nuclear power.
Anti-nuclear activists complained earlier this week after discovering that when they searched for their own names on search engines such as Google and Yahoo-Kimo, a pro-nuclear power Web site (anuclear-safety.twenergy.org.tw) operated by the ministry appeared as the first suggested Web site.
Bureau officials said the “keyword advertising” and linking of the names have been removed.
However, fans of film director Ko I-chen (柯一正) said when they tried to follow Ko’s recent anti-nuclear activities by searching his name along with “nuclear energy” on Google, the first link suggestion was still the pro-nuclear Web site.
Searching Green Citizens’ Action Alliance’s name along with “nuclear energy” produced the same result on Google, but not on Yahoo-Kimo, where the link to the pro-nuclear Web site has been removed.
“There is a tacit agreement and a business protocol among all major portal sites and search engines that ‘trademarks’ cannot be purchased as keyword,” said an Internet software engineer surnamed Lee (李), who specializes in program designs for keyword search.
“For example, Pepsi Cola cannot buy the words ‘Coca Cola’ for Web keyword advertising links,” Lee said. “Since trademarks cannot be bought and sold as keywords, how can the government buy up the names of these prominent people with high name recognition, for the purpose of keyword advertising, without the consent of these individuals?”
Huang said Taiwan lacks clear guidelines on the use of a person’s name for keyword advertising and Web site linking. Unless a person’s name is linked directly to pro-nuclear energy Web sites, a case cannot be made that that person’s rights have been violated, he said.
“A responsible portal site and search engine, however, should monitor its contents, and should make it clear to users which ones are keyword advertising,” he added.
The keypoint is the “tortfeasor,” the person who commits a tort (civil wrong), either intentionally or through negligence, which would be the bureau in this case, Huang said.
“It used government budget allocation for bundling neutral words such as ‘nuclear energy,’ and even ‘anti-nuclear’ terms, to connect to pro-nuclear energy Web sites. This amounts to taking government money to limit people who question government policies to a particular direction on the Net,” Huang said.
“As of now I cannot think of a suitable description regarding this tactic, but it certainly will not be positive descriptive words,” he added.
Huang said he had been involved in pushing for the amendment of the Budget Act (預算法) to regulate the use of “placement marketing” by government agencies, but had not thought that government agencies would use public funds for keyword advertising.
“This matter highlights the importance of drafting laws on ‘Internet neutrality.’ The government is supposed to set up laws to regulate neutrality of Net use. Instead it is trying to “distort’ Net use. This is very scary,” he said.