Antitrust Complaints Against Google Still Don't Make Any Sense

from the think-this-through dept

There's been plenty of buzz about the EU Commission basically admitting that it's going to go after Google on antitrust grounds if Google doesn't change certain practices. However, as we've seen with past claims of antitrust issues with Google, when you begin to unpack the complaints, they don't seem to hold up to much scrutiny. There is no argument that Google is a big player, and could be abusive -- but there is little, if any, evidence of actual abuse. And, most of all, there seems to be no evidence that Google's actions harm consumers.

With perfect timing, the Antitrust & Competition Policy Blog held a blog symposium concerning antitrust issues related to Google and there are a bunch of worthwhile reads in there. Much of the focus of the discussion (and some of the EU's complaints) have to do with the nonsensical concept of "search neutrality" -- a made up concept that was designed originally to mock Google for supporting "net neutrality." But just because you add "neutrality" to the end of each phrase doesn't mean that the two have anything in common. Most people supporting the concept of "search neutrality" talk about how it's somehow "unfair" if Google pushes down a website. In fact, that's been the crux of most of the complaints from companies -- that Google doesn't rank them high enough, or somehow favors its own services above their own. But if their services suck and consumers find them annoying or spammy, shouldn't we want Google to demote them? And so far no one has explained why Google should support other search engines.

In that online symposium, Frank Pasquale makes the case for why Google should be subject to having others review its algorithmic choices to keep such searches "neutral." But, in one of the more compelling statements, law professor James Grimmelman points out that for all this talk of "search neutrality," no one can explain how it makes any sense:

The problem is that one cannot define "manipulation" without some principled conception of the baseline from which it is a deviation. To punish Google for being non-neutral, one must first define "neutral," and this is a surprisingly difficult task.

In the first place, search engines exist to make distinctions among websites, so equality of outcome is the wrong goal. Nor is it possible to say, except in extremely rare cases (such as, perhaps, "4263 feet in meters") what the objectively correct best search results are. The entire basis of search is that different users have different goals, and the entire basis of competition in search is that different search engines have different ways of identifying relevant content. Courts and regulators who attempt to substitute their own judgments of quality for a search engine's are likely to do worse by its users.

Neutrality, then, must be a process value: even-handed treatment of all websites, whether they be the search engine's friends or foes. Call this idea "impartiality." Tarleton Gillespie suggested the term to me in conversation.) The challenge for impartiality is that search engines are in the business of making distinctions among websites (Google alone makes hundreds of changes a year).

You can't just say that you're going to force Google to be "neutral," because there is nothing neutral about what a search engine does. By definition it's picking winners and losers. If it does a bad job of it, people switch to other search engines (and, for what it's worth, a lot of people have been complaining about search quality lately -- and I've certainly found myself using DuckDuckGo and Blekko more frequently as Google doesn't find stuff it should be able to find).

But, as Grimmelman notes, even if you can argue that Google shouldn't be allowed to favor its own offerings, that leads to a difficult question: is the purpose of anti-trust law to benefit consumers or to benefit competitors? Some may argue that with greater competition, consumers are automatically better off, but that's slightly misleading. That's true of greater competition in the overall world (and it's why I can choose those competing search engines). But does it make sense to have that same sort of competition within Google by forcing it to change its algorithms? That's a much, much harder case. Again, Grimmelman highlights the problems:

Here, however, it confronts one of the most difficult problems of high-technology antitrust: weighing pro-competitive justifications and anti-competitive harms in the design of complicated and rapidly changing products. Many self-serving innovations in search also have obvious user benefits.

One example is Google's treatment of product-search sites like Foundem and Ciao. Google has admitted that it applies algorithmic penalties to price-comparison sites. This may sound like naked retaliation against competitors, but the sad truth is that most of these "competitors" are threats only to Google's users, not to Google itself. There are some high-quality product-search sites, but also hundreds of me-too sites with interchangeable functionality and questionable graphic design. When users search for a product by its name, these me-too sites are trying to reintermediate a transaction that has very little need of them. Ranking penalties directed at this category share some of the pro-consumer justification of Google's recent moves against webspam.

In other words, it seems pretty clear that some of the sites complaining loudest for antitrust action against Google were crappy sites that users didn't want cluttering up their Google search results. Why should Google be punished just because those sites couldn't compete and offer a good service? That seems backwards.

There is no doubt that we should be cautious around companies that get to be "too big," to make sure they're not doing things that hurt the public. But, so much of the focus on Google is about (a) just how big Google is and (b) how it harms some competitors within Google. Of course, plenty of Google competitors thrive within (and outside) Google as well. It really only seems to be the flailing ones who are complaining the loudest (with the possible exception of Yelp, whose complaints still don't make any sense to me).

If there are legitimate antitrust concerns, they should be discussed, but so far, all of the concerns raised seem to be because some companies just don't like how they rank in Google. And it's not at all clear we need a massive antitrust lawsuit to deal with that issue. It's not at all clear it's an issue to begin with.


Reader Comments (rss)

(Flattened / Threaded)

  1.  
    identicon
    Anonymous Coward, Jun 4th, 2012 @ 1:32pm

    "And, most of all, there seems to be no evidence that Google's actions harm consumers. "

    That's the problem, consumers aren't being optimally scammed out of every possible dollar, with monopoly prices, by the government-industrial complex. The govt. - industrial complex feels that they can more optimally milk the public for more money if they pass more anti-competitive laws and go after businesses that do a decent job at serving public demands, and the public interest, and replacing them with government established monopolists that milk the public out of every dime they can. When someone, like Google, provides a competing product that competes with the potential to extract more net profits from the public it must be against some law.

     

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  2.  
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    Anonymous Coward, Jun 4th, 2012 @ 1:41pm

    Re:

    Look at cable and broadcasting. It's nothing but commercials and the prices are astronomical. Broadband prices are high too. The public is being scammed because the government established monopolies in this arena. That's how it's supposed to be. High prices and poor service.

    But Google and others offer an alternative source of information that competes with the big government established media cartels. It makes it harder for these cartels to provide inferior services at a higher price when they must compete. So the competition must be illegal.


    Look at the taxi cab industry. They also have a government established monopoly too. Consequently, the public is getting scammed. They could be provided a much more affordable or even a free service but that wouldn't be optimally profitable for the government-industrial complex and so it must be breaking some law. How else are politicians supposed to benefit from campaign contributions and the revolving door? That's how it's supposed to be, if the public isn't being scammed out of every dollar possible something must be wrong. The politicians aren't benefiting from campaign contributions and revolving door favors as much as they could be and the government established monopolists aren't optimizing their profits at public expense. That's wrong!!!!

     

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  3.  
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    Anonymous Coward, Jun 4th, 2012 @ 1:42pm

    We had search neutrality before. I'd do a search on something and wade through pages of useless links in order to not find what I wanted. Very neutral. Useless.

     

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  4.  
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    fogbugzd (profile), Jun 4th, 2012 @ 1:45pm

    I have tried to use other search engines like duckduckgo. I have always gone back to Google because they do a better job of helping me find what I am looking for. There are things I don't like about Google, but I come back to them because they are the best I have found.

    There is nothing anticompetitive about doing the best job. The public would not benefit if Google were forced to do a worse job of searching.

     

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  5.  
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    gorehound (profile), Jun 4th, 2012 @ 1:48pm

    And I immediately have to wonder if a lot of the Anti-Google Stance in a Government does not come from MAFIAA Paying off Politicians.
    Google does a great job at Searching.
    'Nuff Said !!!

     

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  6.  
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    Anonymous Coward, Jun 4th, 2012 @ 1:51pm

    the biggest problem is, as stated, the fact that Google is 'big'. there is nothing that an authority that has immense power likes better than to be able to exert that power and it doesn't even worry at the direction it is exerted, the reasons being employed or what the outcome might be. classic example of 'i am gonna do it, simply because i can'!

     

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  7.  
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    Jeremy2020 (profile), Jun 4th, 2012 @ 1:51pm

    Re:

    Of course it would! The public being the people slipping money directly into politicians pockets...those of us only paying taxes don't count.

     

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  8.  
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    Anonymous Coward, Jun 4th, 2012 @ 2:11pm

    Re:

    Way back when, that's why Google became my primary search engine. Yahoo gave me link spam, Google gave me usable results.

     

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  9.  
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    Anonymous Coward, Jun 4th, 2012 @ 2:15pm

    I'm starting to believe this is France and Italy for some reason.

     

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  10.  
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    Frankz (profile), Jun 4th, 2012 @ 2:27pm

    Large enough bribes, er, "campaign contributions", will start anti trust investigations against anyone.

     

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  11.  
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    johnny canada, Jun 4th, 2012 @ 2:30pm

    I use Google.

    i have tried others but when other search engines actual link to a Google search page well, back to Google.

    As for linking to their products, can you go on to Cannon web site to look for a Nikon camera, or on Pepsi site to look for who sells Coke in your hometown?

    If is a free service that Google offers. You are free to use it or it's competitor you are free to choice

     

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  12.  
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    MrWilson, Jun 4th, 2012 @ 3:24pm

    I'm really surprised Bob hasn't shown up ranting about Big Search yet.

    For as much as I hear (usually tech-unsavvy) people rant about how Google is Big Brother, I've never had a Matrix moment where something on the screen indicates that some website seems to know too much about me. I block what I don't like, whether it's tracking or ads. I turn off features that I don't care for. Google rarely has any kind of a hiccup in service and the worst of its missteps don't seem that bad at all. If Google is actually as evil as some people (might be getting paid to) say, why aren't we seeing it?

     

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  13.  
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    Anonymous Coward, Jun 4th, 2012 @ 5:15pm

    Re:

    Bob's too busy drinking the MAFIAA kool aid to comment on this article.

     

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  14.  
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    Anonymous Coward, Jun 4th, 2012 @ 9:49pm

    Mike, I would have to say I am a little surprised here.

    Neutral is pretty easy to define. It would be that Google would consider all services without any algo based bias to wards Google products or partner products. When you type in "mail", Google mail should not be the first result by default. That is a bias towards their internal products.

    The issue is that Google is so big now that they can use their dominant position to corral their search users into making other choices beneficial for Google, by featuring those products more prominently in the supposedly unbiased search results. Nobody has an issue with Google buying ads from itself to promote it's products, but when the core search is biased towards other Google products, it tends to hurt the rest of the market.

    While there are other search engines, Google is the dominant player both in standard and mobile search, and that means they should be held up to a reasonable standard.

    That you cannot see this suggests a whole bunch of unhappy things.

     

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  15.  
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    Mike Masnick (profile), Jun 4th, 2012 @ 11:55pm

    Re:

    Neutral is pretty easy to define. It would be that Google would consider all services without any algo based bias to wards Google products or partner products. When you type in "mail", Google mail should not be the first result by default. That is a bias towards their internal products.

    Just as an experiment, I did this. And you're wrong. I took a screen shot: http://i.imgur.com/CShN5.png

    Yahoo Mail is first. Mail.com is second. Gmail is third.

    Got any other arguments?

    Or, at least, an apology for the insult?

     

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  16.  
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    Anonymous Cowherd, Jun 4th, 2012 @ 11:56pm

    Re:

    The way I see it, search results fall under free speech. Google is free to give whatever results it likes, and if users don't agree they're free to use another search engine. It's absurd to suggest that Google should be "held up to a reasonable standard" (ie forced to promote links nobody wants to find) simply because lots of people choose to use it.

     

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  17.  
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    Rikuo (profile), Jun 5th, 2012 @ 12:47am

    Re: Re:

    Oooh, nice one Mike. There ain't no sweeter way of dealing with a troll than to say "I did what you said, and here's a screenshot. You's lyin'"

     

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  18.  
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    PaulT (profile), Jun 5th, 2012 @ 2:38am

    Re:

    "The issue is that Google is so big now that they can use their dominant position to corral their search users into making other choices beneficial for Google, by featuring those products more prominently in the supposedly unbiased search results"

    ...but nobody is forced to be one of their users. If you don't like Google's results, Google's morals or Google's actions, you never *have* to use their site. Don't like to be tracked or have ads shown to you? They don't stop you from blocking them with relevant addons, even in Chrome. Virtually all of their products have viable, successful competitors. That's why antitrust complaints don't hold water without more evidence.

    "Nobody has an issue with Google buying ads from itself to promote it's products, but when the core search is biased towards other Google products, it tends to hurt the rest of the market."

    So, don't make shit up. Show where this is actually happening. If you can't, then your objection is based on fantasy, so it's irrelevant, sorry.

    "While there are other search engines, Google is the dominant player both in standard and mobile search, and that means they should be held up to a reasonable standard."

    They are - their results and quality of their services. Most people jumped ship from the likes of Yahoo and Altavista over too Google because they're results were what they wanted. They can jump from Google if they decide that they don't get as good results as other search engines. Google's dominance in the search field has not helped Google+ become a dominant social network, and so on.

    Half-assed conspiracy theories and "but what if they did this?" doesn't hold any water unless you can actually show they're doing such things. As Mike has already shown, you're yet to give an example of where this is happening, as the only example you have is quickly and demonstrably false. In fact, due presumably to my location and other factors, GMail appears 6th in my results for mail (2 pages on the UK "newspaper" site Daily Mail, 2 different versions of Yahoo Mail (.com and .es) and mail.com all appear before it).

    Do you have any real examples?

     

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  19.  
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    Jeremy Lyman (profile), Jun 5th, 2012 @ 4:58am

    Re:

    Defining neutrality is beside the point when you consider the purpose of a search engine, which is to return the most relevant results to the user. "Neutral" searches are where they started out and, frankly, sucked compared to the mysticism that is employed now. Google is returning an opinion of what it thinks the user wants and their engineers think those opinions are more relevant when computed with some bias; and a lot of users agree.

    As far as being "big" and "dominant" enough to corral users, I think it's a valid concern in a lot of commercial spaces (telcom, banking, retail) where consumer choice is limited by company policy; however the transient nature of the internet makes it less applicable here. Even if I use many of Google's services, I am free to bounce back and forth between dozens of search sites if I don't like the results Google gives me. (this user churn should keep everyone striving to better serve customers)

    Go ahead and run a Google search for "search engine" and see what comes back. For me it's plenty of recommendations to competing pages, not a recursive circle back to itself. If Google started modifying results to not list other search engines or made Chrome redirect to Google when you entered Bing.com in the URL bar we'd certainly have a problem, but that's not what's happening.

    I'm actually a little surprised that Gmail doesn't come up first in search results for me either. Search results are Google's opinion, and I would assume Google thinks Gmail is the best damn webmail out there. Not many people set out to create the third best offering, and I personally use Gmail ALL THE TIME. Maybe Google knows that and assumes I'm not the kind of user who would search for "mail" on a webpage when I'm looking for my inbox. It's a mystery, and I think that's what irks these people who complain about bias. They say "it's biased" and Google replies "it's better". If you want to get listed higher in "biased" results, be better.

     

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  20.  
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    shawnhcorey (profile), Jun 5th, 2012 @ 6:55am

    Of Course It Makes Sense

    Microsoft wants Bing to be the number one search engine so it got its lobbyists to petition the government into harassing Google. What's so difficult to understand about that?

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  21.  
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    rubberpants, Jun 5th, 2012 @ 9:12am

    Re: Re:

    Troll pwned. Notice he's no where to be found now. Funny that.

     

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  22.  
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    terry (profile), Jun 6th, 2012 @ 12:04pm

    There are major differences

    Three major differences between "Search Neutrality" and "Net Neutrality"

    1. Cost - You pay your ISP a monthly fee whereas Google offers it services for free.

    2. Exclusivity - With Net neutrality you have only one ISP as it is not practical to use more than one. Yet you can have and use as many different search engines as you like providing results.

    3. Breaking services - That was what Net Neutrality was all about, ISPs were breaking services such as VoIP offered by competitors so you could not use them and then offering their own unbroken service. Short of Google using the communication products they offer such as configuring GMail to start blocking emails from say Facebook, Google has no capability to break any services provided by competitors.

    Note: All search results need to be sorted by some criteria and if a government believes they know of a way to organize them in what they see as unbiased, then the web is open and they can always provide a search engine for the public. Although my personal observation has been that when it comes to information on the Internet being made available to the public, governments around the world have been the least likely not to try and tweak the displayed results for an agenda. Look at the great firewalls/filters, all of the legislation both passed and proposed as well as trade agreements.

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]


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