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A South Carolina senator has proposed that search engines which offer pay-to-play deals should face sanctions - including jail time for the company executives.

The latest amendment to this year's doorstop telecomms legislation, S.2686, was tabled by Jim DeMint (R), and targets search sites which "prioritize or give preferential or discriminatory treatment in the methodology used to determine Internet-search results based on an advertising or other commercial agreement with a third party".

Violators would face a $5m fine - and executives would be liable for a custodial sentence.

Who could object to such a proposal? Certainly not Google and Yahoo!, which having gone to Washington DC to argue against network discrimination, can't really be seen fighting for the right to discriminate on a selective basis.

The popularity of link-based algorithms, popularized by Google, has done much to banish fears that search engines are crudely promoting commercial sites in their Search Engine Results Pages, or SERPS. But the new algorithms have created problems of their own.

The three most popular search engines, Google, Yahoo! and Microsoft's MSN are principally advertising resellers. So the more pages bearing their advertisements they return, the more likely they are to prosper. It's a commercial conflict of interest that none of the big three have yet to address, let alone resolve.

So the concern for web surfers today isn't so much that a Pfizer, a Merck or a Johnson & Johnson will pay its way into the top SERP spots for "headache", but that thousands of low value pages are returned which shouldn't really be there at all. Search engines can't tackle the problem of web spam - the "Grey Goo" of the web - so long as they profit from it. ®

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