Google Staredown With FTC May Result In FTC Blinking

from the if-you-don't-have-a-case... dept

Back in October, we wrote about a report that the FTC was preparing to file antitrust charges against Google. In trying to find out more, the story kept shifting. First, we heard it was all about "search manipulation" in putting Google-related info on top of search results (i.e., search for a location and a Google Map shows at the top of the page). Then, there was some talk about how it was going to focus on how recently-purchased-by-Google Motorola Mobility was abusing standards-essential patents. If it was the latter, that seemed like a weird way to go, since it was so unrelated to Google's main business. Similarly, the whole "search manipulation" claim seemed odd. What kind of "harm" is it when someone searching on Google for an address is shown a Google map. It seems like it actually benefits consumers.

Also, for all the talk of Google hurting others, I just don't see it. I'm constantly surprised at how rarely it seems that Google-related results top the list of searches on relevant things. Every time we bring this up, we see people claim that Google should be taken down for favoring its own services when people do searches, but we so rarely see that. Just as an example, I just did a Google search on "browser" and this is what I see:
An ad for IE and then Firefox... and then Wikipedia. Chrome doesn't check in until fourth.

How about airplane travel, since that's a key one (Expedia is one of the companies driving the case against Google):
Google stuff seems nowhere to be found. Instead you have Expedia up top. In second place you have Kayak... the company that powers Microsoft's travel search. So... I'm at a loss.

So too, it appears, are some folks at the FTC. Despite all the bluster, there are growing indications that the FTC may blink, as it's realizing that perhaps it really doesn't have enough evidence to make the case.

Talking to a number of folks in DC concerning this, I keep hearing the same story over and over again. They're all variations on the following: FTC boss Jon Leibowitz is getting set to leave the job (and go into the private sector, of course), but would like a "defining moment." Somewhere in the last year or two, he decided that going after Google for anti-trust violations would be such a crowning moment. As such, he brought on a number of folks to help him do that, including Tim Wu, who had just written an entire book basically saying that big companies are bad. While I respect Tim, and agree with him on lots of things, I've never understood his argument here. It just makes no sense. Earlier this year, the FTC also brought on outside litigator Beth Wilkinson, which seemed like a clear statement of plans to sue.

And ever since then they've been trying to come up with something. And, from the sound of things, generally turning up nothing. So, if you're Liebowitz and have effectively made a big bet on going after Google, what do you do? One strategy might be to leak a bunch of stories about how the FTC is all set to sue Google... and then tell Google that it better "settle."

Yes, the FTC may have taken the patent troll technique: threaten to sue, but agree to "settle" at a price that is less than it would cost Google to defend, such that the FTC can claim a "victory." Over the last month or so, it's appeared that the FTC was really just hoping Google would play its assigned role and cough up some cash and Liebowitz could claim victory and ride off into the sunset (or cushy corporate job, whichever pays more). In fact, I'd guess there are still decent odds that this happens. Google may well decide that it's cheaper to just pay up and get this behind it. But, from the articles coming out this week, it appears that (1) Google may be willing to call the FTC's bluff and (2) the FTC may be realizing that Google knows it doesn't have the goods to bring a successful anti-trust case to completion.

Either way, it's pretty sad that we're reduced to this. If there was a clear case of consumer harm via unassailable market control, then antitrust activity could make sense. But there seems to be no evidence that we've seen to support that. Consumers, for the most part, seem pretty happy with Google. If they didn't like Google Maps popping up when they searched on an address, they could use any number of other search engines. Personally, I'd find it a lot more annoying if I was forced to see other mapping offerings. Google Maps works for me, and when I search on an address, it's what I want.

So, really, who is the FTC protecting? Consumers? Doesn't seem like it. Google competitors? Is that really the FTC's job? Jon Liebowitz's legacy? Is that what's become of the FTC these days? Really?


Reader Comments (rss)

(Flattened / Threaded)

  •  
    identicon
    Anonymous Coward, Nov 21st, 2012 @ 8:11am

    Google doesn't just search the internet

    I think the problem comes from the fact that Google has several search related services and it's easy to fall into the hole of "Oh Google is using its search engine to push people to those services." The problem is that when I type in an address, I'm not searching for that address on the internet, I want to know where it is in reality, and to prevent Google from showing me that makes no sense.

     

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

  •  
    icon
    jupiterkansas (profile), Nov 21st, 2012 @ 8:14am

    Don't mind me...

    ...I just came here to see Bob rant.

     

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

  •  
    identicon
    Anonymous Coward, Nov 21st, 2012 @ 8:15am

    So what if Google promotes their own listings, if I go to a car dealership should they be promoting their competitors cars before their own? Hell no.

    Google isn't forcing people to use their search engine.

     

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

  • This comment has been flagged by the community. Click here to show it
     
    identicon
    out_of_the_blue, Nov 21st, 2012 @ 8:16am

    Gosh, it's "no evidence of real harm" day again!

    "for all the talk of Google hurting others, I just don't see it." ... "But there seems to be no evidence that we've seen to support that."

    Well, here's ONE way to find evidence, Mike: search for any term, then hover over the results. You'll see that Google no longer (for a couple years I think) provides the direct link but instead filters it through their own servers. That's spying plain and simple. I'm harmed by it because slows down the net. Google has NO right to do that, it's just possible and they like to spy. Left unchecked, Google will continue to expand its tracking and collating. It's even gots it smarmy javascript in "file-sharing" hosts now, so probably everyone here would be easily identifiable enough to obtain a warrant on that probable cause.

    This obsessive and excessive tracking WILL lead to loss of freedom on the net. You claim Google is merely commercial, but it ain't.

    The "harm" is squishy and difficult to define, yes -- it's largely consolidating for the future while you take the cookies now -- but BIG IS BAD to begin with -- and how, IF evidence does pop up of harm, do you get Google under control? It already spends millions lobbying. The Public has almost no influence over it. Google is a tax-dodger with the "double Irish" scheme. -- It's an amoral corporation, not your friend.

    Besides, there's always the possibility the FTC has been bribed to give it a whitewash, immunizing it for the future. We don't know, but you don't stay safe by allowing every corporation to do as it wishes. Learn your anti-trust. -- By the way, do you favor the Austrian school? Keynesism? How about giving us some notion of your own beliefs, not more of this squishy "no evidence" crap?







    Take a moment for Mike "Streisand Effect" Masnick and click:
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Streisand_effect
    Actual unsolicited testimonial: "Until I read Techdirt.com, I didn't know what shameless self-promotion was!"

     

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

  • This comment has been flagged by the community. Click here to show it
     
    identicon
    Anonymous Coward, Nov 21st, 2012 @ 8:17am

    How much did Google pay you for this article shill boy?

     

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

  • This comment has been flagged by the community. Click here to show it
     
    identicon
    Anonymous Coward, Nov 21st, 2012 @ 8:17am

    How much did Google pay you for this article shill boy? I wonder if you'll get outted again in this litigation.

     

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

  •  
    identicon
    Anonymous Coward, Nov 21st, 2012 @ 8:19am

    Search is less useful when Google places their own resources first. The most egregious is Places. When you search for a business, you are shown Google Places content first before other, more relevant search results.

     

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

    •  
      identicon
      Anonymous Coward, Nov 21st, 2012 @ 8:40am

      Re:

      Only if you use Google to search. Google is not search, search is something Google provides.

       

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

    •  
      identicon
      Anonymous Coward, Nov 21st, 2012 @ 9:52am

      Re:

      And whats stopping you from choosing another search engine?

       

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

    •  
      icon
      Mike Masnick (profile), Nov 21st, 2012 @ 10:01am

      Re:

      Search is less useful when Google places their own resources first. The most egregious is Places. When you search for a business, you are shown Google Places content first before other, more relevant search results.

      I actually find that quite useful. How is that harmful? If you don't like Google's results, why not use someone else?

       

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

  •  
    icon
    JWW (profile), Nov 21st, 2012 @ 8:36am

    hypocitical

    I love how one arm of the government (FTC) goes after Google because it might be harming consumers who need to be protected, while another arm (DOJ) actively assists huge megacorporations in harming consumers by assisting them in pursuing violations of civil law.

     

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

    •  
      icon
      Simple Mind (profile), Nov 21st, 2012 @ 10:36am

      Re: hypocitical

      The govt as a whole may appear hypocritical but that is a symptom of the real problem. (some of) The people in charge of our govt offices are pushing their own agendas ahead of the agendas of the people they work for (us). It is symptomatic throughout the govt now to the point where everybody expects it like business as usual. This includes revolving doors and congresspeople that favor lobby interests over constituent interests.

      I often hear people say things like "but the President doesn't have the power to do anything about that so how can we blame him?" Well, the Pres appoints these heads doesn't he? He has oversight and is letting it go on. These heads are not doing their jobs if they put themselves first! Obama seems like a nice guy and I like a lot of what he says, but the fact that he lets guys Leibowitz, Holder, Bernanke, and many others in his administration go on about their way means that he condones what they are doing. And what they are doing is screwing up everything they have charge over for the sake of their own personal gain.

       

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

  •  
    icon
    E. Zachary Knight (profile), Nov 21st, 2012 @ 8:42am

    That's a nice search engine you have there...

    It would be a shame if anything happened to it.

    Is this really what the government has become? A glorified band of thugs and hooligans bent on extracting as much money as possible from the people and businesses within the US?

    "We really want to extract money from Google. How can we do this?"

    That is basically what Leibowitz's thought process seems to have been. If a government agency is no longer interested in protecting people from harm, but rather in extracting money from successful businesses, then it is time to get rid of the agency.

     

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

    •  
      icon
      DannyB (profile), Nov 21st, 2012 @ 9:54am

      Re: That's a nice search engine you have there...

      > Is this really what the government has become?
      > A glorified band of thugs and hooligans . . .


      No. The government is not the thugs. It is the tool of the thugs and hooligans. Maybe the term is goons?

       

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

  •  
    identicon
    Anonymous Coward, Nov 21st, 2012 @ 8:59am

    Google may well decide to settle, but when will it say 'enough is enough' and make a stand? sooner or later, it has to grow a decent set of balls and go against the various industries etc that keep taking it to the cleaners. sometimes it is better to lose more money and be proven right than to save some money and be walked over! and dont forget the customer aspect either!

     

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

  • This comment has been flagged by the community. Click here to show it
     
    identicon
    out_of_the_blue, Nov 21st, 2012 @ 9:02am

    Harm is easy to find if not willfully blind.

    http://www.theregister.co.uk/2011/07/14/google_profiles_youtube_verification_id/

    It's no longer possible for individuals to simply log on to YouTube with an anonymous username. The world's largest ad broker has clearly spotted a flaw in the site's business model and is now forcing users to sign in to the video-sharing site using an existing Google account such as that used for, say, Gmail.

    This, of course, means Google is increasingly herding users of its products into one gated field.


    http://www.wired.com/threatlevel/2009/12/google-talks-out-its-portal/

    We asked Google some simple questions about how much user data it turns over to the government. These are questions at the heart of free expression, especially with a company that wants you to use its operating system, its browser, its DNS servers, its search service and its e-mail and phonecalling programs.

    Google, however, declined to address the question adequately.

    Here's Google's answer, as provided by spokesman Brian Richardson:

    We don't talk about types or numbers of requests to help protect all our users. Obviously, we follow the law like any other company. When we receive a subpoena or court order, we check to see if it meets both the letter and the spirit of the law before complying. And if it doesn't we can object or ask that the request is narrowed. We have a track record of advocating on behalf of our users.

    What is Google hiding? Are the numbers so big that Google might be seen as an agent of the government, or that people might rethink the wisdom of filling up 7 GB of free e-mail space?


    http://www.reuters.com/article/2011/09/30/us-internet-security-idUSTRE78T2GY20110930

    (Reuters) - Internet companies such as Google, Twitter and Facebook are increasingly co-opted for surveillance work as the information they gather proves irresistible to law enforcement agencies, Web experts said this week.

    Although such companies try to keep their users' information private, their business models depend on exploiting it to sell targeted advertising, and when governments demand they hand it over, they have little choice but to comply.

     

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

    •  
      identicon
      Anonymous Coward, Nov 21st, 2012 @ 9:40am

      Re: Harm is easy to find if not willfully blind.

      "We asked Google some simple questions about how much user data it turns over to the government. These are questions at the heart of free expression, especially with a company that wants you to use its operating system, its browser, its DNS servers, its search service and its e-mail and phonecalling programs. "
      Ok then here you go;http://www.google.com/transparencyreport/userdatarequests/


      "It's no longer possible for individuals to simply log on to YouTube with an anonymous username. The world's largest ad broker has clearly spotted a flaw in the site's business model and is now forcing users to sign in to the video-sharing site using an existing Google account such as that used for, say, Gmail.

      This, of course, means Google is increasingly herding users of its products into one gated field. "
      You clearly don't work in IT, by combining accounts like that they are reducing the amount of duplicate information they are storeing.
      And when your as big as youtube and gmail storeing that much duplicate information is expensive and wasteful.

       

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

    •  
      identicon
      Anonymous Coward, Nov 21st, 2012 @ 9:45am

      Re: Harm is easy to find if not willfully blind.

      I didn't read your post, you don't seem to give anyone else that curtsy. But I can tell that you are talking about Google pushing to there other services. It's kind of like when I go into a restaurant, and they refuse to serve me food from McDonald's. They are using their monopoly to sell me only the food they have when I am in there restaurant.

       

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

      •  
        icon
        Simple Mind (profile), Nov 21st, 2012 @ 10:42am

        Re: Re: Harm is easy to find if not willfully blind.

        We can tell you didn't read his post because that is not what he is talking about. You made the huge mistake of assuming he would stay on subject. ;)

         

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

    •  
      identicon
      Donglebert the Needlessly Obtuse, Nov 21st, 2012 @ 10:04am

      Re: Harm is easy to find if not willfully blind.

      Way to go on trying to provide "evidence" that bears no relation to your original argument. And your evidence is bollocks anyway.

      Looking at your examples.
      - Youtube crack down on anonymous uploads. Don't think the RIAA et al had any influence on that. And you love the RIAA's bum crack.
      - Google Transparency Report
      - Google sell targeted advertising. Well I never.

       

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

  •  
    icon
    freemarket (profile), Nov 21st, 2012 @ 10:05am

    The last time I checked, Google is a free service. Regardless of whether Google had favored its own services or not, the whole argument that one should not promote one's own products / services is just non-sense. There are other search engines out there that people can use. I think people are just taking free things for granted these days. It is not written in the constitution somewhere that Google should be free and you shall enjoy it without any condition.
    Government officials are always good at one thing - go after the big guys to make a name out of themselves. Afterall, these businesses did not get there by themselves, they owed it to the society and the government - if you believe in that.

     

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

  •  
    identicon
    Anonymous Coward, Nov 21st, 2012 @ 10:24am

    Network TV

    When I watch TV, the only ads I see for TV shows are those that air on the same channel. Should the FTC force them all to air ads for each others shows? For free?

     

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

  •  
    icon
    Rikuo (profile), Nov 21st, 2012 @ 10:34am

    For what it's worth, I did a search for "browser" and Chrome was first, a sponsored ad.
    I then searched for "web browser" and it wasn't on the first page, I actually got IE9 (sponsored ad) first place. Chrome was fourth on page 2.

     

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

  •  
    icon
    ColinCowpat (profile), Nov 22nd, 2012 @ 3:41am

    Waste of time

    This sort of sabre rattling by the FTC or those in politics is bollocks (excuse my French). Cost to move to a competitor - one mouse click. Nothing is stopping the consumer.

    The whole shebang is a proxy for competitors to try trip Google up by any means they can. That in itself should be the clue stick of which companies really need their business practices examined...

     

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


Add Your Comment

Have a Techdirt Account? Sign in now. Want one? Register here
Get Techdirt’s Daily Email
Save me a cookie
  • Note: A CRLF will be replaced by a break tag (<br>), all other allowable HTML will remain intact
  • Allowed HTML Tags: <b> <i> <a> <em> <br> <strong> <blockquote> <hr> <tt>
Follow Techdirt
A word from our sponsors...
Essential Reading
Techdirt Reading List
Techdirt Insider Chat
A word from our sponsors...
Recent Stories
A word from our sponsors...

Close

Email This