Following widespread press coverage last week, Google confirmed on Friday that it is subject to an antitrust investigation by the US Federal Trade Commission (FTC), a significant uptick in the level of antitrust scrutiny that Google now faces around the world.
Google’s response is interesting but not enlightening. As described in an ICOMP blog post on Friday, the key antitrust complaint against Google is that it prioritises its own content over that of others when it comes to search rankings. This misleads consumers into thinking that Google’s content is the most relevant to users’ queries and pushes others’ content out of the useful rankings. It creates a fundamentally unfair playing field where Google gets to decides who wins and fails on the Internet. And the answer is: Google wins.
So how does Google respond to this central issue? Nothing. Not a word. Google merely states that it is “unclear exactly what the FTC’s concerns are” and repeats increasingly tired mantras about “putting the user first” and “competition is only one click away”.
It is extraordinary that Google claims not to understand the antitrust concerns that have been leveled against it. It has been engaged in fighting a rearguard action against various Government antitrust investigations for years. It is not credible for it to claim that it does not understand why people are concerned about the manipulation of search results and why using the gateway to the Internet to favour its own products and stifle competition is anti-competitive. It provides no answer to these concerns. Silence speaks volumes.
The arguments that Google is only “putting the user first” and that “competition is only one click away” do not hold water either.
Google is an advertising company that makes its many billions of dollars a year from selling advertising. Its primary principle (and indeed, its duty to its shareholders) is to maximize its advertising revenue. Sometimes that is maximized by doing what’s best for the user, and sometimes it is maximized by demoting or excluding rivals, both small and large, that might provide a competitive outlet for advertisers, and by punishing websites that carry advertising from rival advertising platforms.
If Google is so focused on doing what is best for the user, then why does Google have so many of the characteristics that it uses to describe other websites as “low quality,” including:
a. Has little or no original content
b. Is filled with paid links that are intended to drive ‘unnatural’ amounts of traffic to the sites paying for them and thus might serve to inflate the perceived relevance or importance of those sites
c. Frequently, whether passively or intentionally, promotes illicit websites and businesses that sell illegal drugs, counterfeit software, knockoff branded goods, and pornography
d. Collects and uses private information about end users without clearly and conspicuously informing those users and obtaining their consent. Indeed, Google has declared not that it wants what is best for the user, but instead to get as close to the “creepy line” with users as it can get away with
e. Putting links to its own sites (rather than the “best” sites) at the top of any results (Google VP Marissa Mayer has admitted as much; others continue to deny it)
The claim that competition is only a click away does not persuade either. There are many ways in which Google ensures that advertisers and users do not switch away from Google. One area of focus of the antitrust investigations is the exclusivity provisions that Google insists on in its syndication and distribution deals with websites, OEMs, mobile carriers and software vendors. Why does Google’s CFO acknowledge that the value of its investments in the Chrome browser are “guaranteed locked in users”? Why does Google’s widely distributed toolbar block attempts by end users to change search defaults? Why are AdWords advertisers restricted in the way that they can use their own data?
These and many other questions will be probed and tested in the coming months. Google will need to come up with better arguments than the ones it published on Friday if it is to emerge without a fundamentally far-reaching re-design of its business model and practices.
By David Wood, ICOMP Legal Counsel