Is Google a free speech opportunist?

Rumors are swirling that the federal government is about to sue Google (s goog) over claims that the company rigs its search results. Google has responded by invoking its right to free speech — but not everyone is buying this.

Tim Wu, a prominent law professor at Columbia, is not convinced that Google is invoking its First Amendment rights in good faith. He suggests that Google and other big companies are cynically invoking constitutional freedoms as part of a corporate deregulation agenda.

“We’re living in a golden age of First Amendment opportunism,” said Wu, speaking Friday at a Penn Law School conference titled “The Evolving Internet.”

In Wu’s view, search results are not really speech in the first space. Instead, he argues, Google’s algorithms are closer to other automated communication tools like navigation devices or even car alarms.

Google, of course, doesn’t share this view. The company prefers to be compared to a newspaper editor — whose choice of what to put in the paper is an undisputed free speech right. In practical terms, this means Google should be able to favor its own restaurant reviews over competing services like Yelp.

So who is right? Most of us would agree with Wu that Google’s search results fall somewhere in the middle of a communication continuum where the editor is on one end and the car alarm is on the other. The hard question is whether Google is far enough along the line to qualify for the First Amendment.

More broadly, this dilemma doesn’t apply just to Google. In the age of the algorithm, other companies may also rush to protect computer-based communication. Should Amazon (s amzn), for instance, be allowed to argue that its product recommendation are a form of free speech?

The point here is that the choice of whether or not to sue Google is part of a larger process in which the country must decide where free speech stops and legitimate regulation begins.

(Image by kentoh via Shutterstock)