Cracking the Code: What are the implications for tech and information policy?

By Paul Lekas, Senior Vice President, Global Public Policy and Morten Skroejer, Senior Director for Technology Competition Policy

A few weeks ago, SIIA released Cracking the Code. As the trade association for companies in the business of information, Cracking the Code is the first of what we hope will be a recurring deep-dive into how people interact with and use information. 

Cracking the Code focuses on how people find information online in their personal and professional lives. The findings, captured here, here, and here, are striking – not only because they’re really interesting, but also because they have direct implications for policymakers in the United States and abroad.

What We Found

For this survey, we asked 2,000 U.S.-based internet users aged 18-70 how they search for information online. The goal was to map the digital landscape and to gain an empirical, evidence-based understanding of how people use various platforms to access information in their personal lives and professional capacities.

What we found was that there has been a gradual but significant change in people’s online search habits. A decade or two ago, traditional search engines, such as Yahoo! and Google, were the primary means for finding information online. And while those types of traditional platforms are obviously still around and widely used, thinking of internet search as the domain of traditional engines is out of touch with people’s actual behavior today.

For many users, there is a clear distinction between how they use the internet to search for information related to their work, their educational pursuits, or personally. 

Searches that are precipitated or inspired by personal interests often involve extensive explorations that can take unexpected turns and lead in surprising directions. These types of exploratory searches often involve a combination of social media and content-specific websites, at least as much as traditional search engines. In fact, our research shows that younger generations, especially those that belong to the Millennial and Gen Z cohort, are more hesitant to use traditional search engines when they look for information online, and are much more likely to rely on social media platforms and niche websites instead.

Work-related information searches, on the other hand, tend to be more focused and less open-ended. For that reason, traditional search engines are still the preferred means of conducting those types of inquiries. Even so, there is a growing awareness among users of the immense potential benefits platforms that incorporate Generative AI offer, and, as a result, how these types of tools are likely to reshape traditional search methods in the near-to-medium term.

Traditional internet search engines that were en vogue 10-15 years ago are no longer as relevant because new and more refined search platforms are better calibrated to meet the needs and interests of younger internet users. But, that is the nature of competition and exactly what you would expect from the continued and dynamic transformation of the digital frontier.

What This Means For Policy

Cracking the Code suggests that policies centered on traditional search engines as the gatekeepers to the internet is the wrong way to think about how the internet actually works today. Social media platforms, news websites, niche websites, and increasingly, GenAI tools should be considered entry points to the internet on par with traditional search engines. And within these categories, there’s a range of differences that are often lumped together.

Empirical data demonstrating how people find information online in their personal and professional lives has a range of implications for policy makers.

First, policymakers should draw on research like this in developing bills and policies that are future proof. The general lesson from this research is that policymakers should focus not on particular technology but on the actions and harms that warrant regulation. This approach will help to cultivate rules of the road that are technology-neutral, future proof, and capable of adapting as technology develops. Adopting a risk-based approach to technology regulation is one way to achieve these goals. 

Second, in the context of the internet search ecosystem, this research is directly relevant to debates on competition. Antitrust policy and enforcement are designed to ensure that we protect and promote competition, not to insulate specific companies from the effects of competition. Fundamentally, this is about market definition. While consumers recognize the difference between traditional search engines, social media platforms, and GenAI apps, when it comes to looking for information online, they are using these tools – and more – in a similar way. The upshot is that when lawmakers focus on alleged dominance of search engine platforms, they are looking at a snapshot of internet behavior that could be obsolete – perhaps consistent with conventional wisdom, but inconsistent with reality.

The debate in the last Congress over whether to pass the American Innovation and Choice Online Act (AICOA) is a case in point. AICOA sought to create a set of special rules that would apply to just a handful of companies in the tech industry, based largely on a range of assumptions (and conventional wisdom) that, as Cracking the Code and other studies have shown, does not match the reality of user behavior on the internet.

Third, future proofing becomes hard as new technology develops rapidly and younger generations lead adoption and drive change. Indeed, it’s possible that we are looking at information and tech policy in the wrong way. Technology is changing rapidly. GenAI is a new concept for most internet users; tools like ChatGPT have been available to the public for less than 18 months. More empirical research is critical to furthering policy debates.


One of SIIA’s core objectives is to foster public policy solutions that support a healthy digital ecosystem and are sufficiently robust to withstand changes driven by technology and politics. We do not know what technological innovation will bring and how user behavior will respond. Yet it is certain that the quest for knowledge and exploration almost certainly will continue to rapidly evolve and profoundly shape our digital interactions. As policymakers debate legislative and regulatory changes in this area, and discuss how to future-proof any such endeavors, they will need to pay close attention to and be mindful of these important developments. 

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