Convergence of Internet search and social networks

Facebook is unique. Users typically spend more time on the Facebook platform than they do on Google, AOL, Yahoo, and all of Microsoft’s web sites combined. Facebook surely knows that if it can integrate more key services users want – like search – users are likelier to see Facebook as the answer to all their online needs. That would be hugely profitable for Facebook. The longer people stay on its platform, the more advertisements it can show them and the more revenue it can make to justify the high share prices being bandied about in connection with its imminent IPO.

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Google, not surprisingly, hasn’t sat idly by while Facebook has gone after its business. Last month, Google fired a return salvo in the battle arising from the convergence of “search + social” by including information from its own social product, Google+, in its search results. While consumers appear to like “Search Plus Your World,” it’s too early to know how they will use advice from online friends alongside information from other more expert and objective sources.  But that is the beauty of innovation: expanded choices for consumers so each can do as he or she sees fit.

Competitors don’t like more competition, so it’s not shocking that Google’s move has drawn knee-jerk complaints about “antitrust violations” from companies like Facebook, Twitter and Microsoft. Microsoft’s motivation in seeking regulators’ assistance to derail competition from “Search Plus Your World” is obvious. Microsoft has a deal that gives it exclusive access to Facebook’s social data for its Bing search engine and is Facebook’s exclusive provider for search engine results. Consequently, until now, Microsoft has had the “search + social” landscape to itself.

The objections by Facebook and Twitter, while no less surprising, are especially inconsistent. Although Facebook and Twitter have complained to lawmakers and regulators that Google refuses to include them in ”Search Plus Your World,” they have denied Google access to the very data that would permit inclusion in Google’s new service. The complaints made by Facebook and Twitter ring false because not only have they denied Google access to their most relevant, timely postings and tweets, but they have given preferred, exclusive access to Microsoft, one of Google’s principal competitors.

This Gang of Three no doubt would howl if the regulators reacted to their complaints by ordering Twitter and Facebook to give Google the same access to their social data that they have given to Microsoft. While that’s unlikely to happen, the point is that government should not be in the business of dictating Internet content, product design and relationships. Government shouldn't require Amazon to sell Barnes and Noble's Nook on its home page, or demand that Netflix provide links to Redbox locations. Telling Google what to include in its search results or telling Facebook and Twitter what partners it should have would, perversely, hobble innovation and undermine competition.

Well-meaning regulators should be wary of complaints made by competitors especially where the actions complained of increase, rather than restrict, the options available to consumers.  Consumers, not regulators, invariably know what’s best for them.

Houck served as lead trial counsel for the 20 state plaintiffs in the government's lawsuit against Microsoft while he was chief of the Antitrust Bureau for the New York State Attorney General's Office from 1995 to 1999. He is an adviser to Google.

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