This is the power to make or break businesses, control online discourse, and steer consumers to the Internet giant’s own websites and affiliated businesses, all based on tweaking an unseen algorithm and holding a network of key online and mobile gateways and properties.
Google’s 70% control of online searches and 90% control of mobile searches, along with its dominant Android mobile operating system, patents, and vast content acquisitions make it the Standard Oil of our time.
The allegations against Google are that it restrains online trade with biased search results that drive consumers to the content it owns (Google Travel, Products, YouTube, Maps, Google+, etc.) or content it chooses, as opposed to that favored organically by the public.
Restraint of trade may be different today than in 1911 when the U.S. Supreme Court ordered John Rockefeller’s Standard Oil broken into parts under the Sherman Antitrust Act. Nonetheless the antitrust principle of preventing dominant players from playing unfairly and hurting consumers by driving out legitimate competition is very real for Google’s 2012 business model.
The principle at stake in the FTC case is critical: If you want to do business online, should you be forced to do business with Google?
Companies like Foundem, Nextag, AsktheBuilder.com and Kayak have been threatened with closing because they have fallen on the wrong side of the assumptions in Google’s Search algorithm. The evidence shows that Google increasingly steers consumers to what it determines to be “quality” web sites – aka those that use Google services and support its business model. If you are not on Page One of a Google Search, your business is not alive, even though you may be the business that consumers prefer in the market, just not Google’s “type” of business.
Counterfeit industries and black markets for prescription drugs, predatory loans and entertainment have also profited because Google has turned a blind eye to the source of its massive advertising dollars and, as a result, companies that play by the rules have been hurt. Example: Google paid the US $500 million last year for illegal pharmacy advertising.
Copyright and other intellectual property rights held by authors, artists, musicians, journalists and Hollywood are also increasingly thrown to the wind because of Google’s dominance, bias against respecting them and the money to be made from “free” content and pirated products.
Can such a dominant search and content Goliath really provide open access that isn’t biased toward its ownership interests?
Google founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin didn’t think so when they went to Stanford.
“We expect that advertising funded search engines will be inherently biased towards the advertisers and away from the needs of the consumers,” they wrote in Appendix A of their research paper explaining their search technique. “Since it is very difficult even for experts to evaluate search engines, search engine bias is particularly insidious.”
Consumers often don’t know that they are being steered or why, so it takes an engineer to show them. Recently engineers from Twitter, MySpace and Facebook showed that Google’s new social search feature steers users to less relevant and less popular spots, like Google+, to promote Google services, rather than Twitter and other spots with unquestionably more traffic. Google increasingly wants our world to be its world.
The young Google founders argued in their Stanford research paper that launched Google that overt bias won’t be tolerated, but covert steering would be acceptable. “For example, a search engine could add a small factor to search results from friendly companies, and subtract a factor from results from competitors,” they wrote. “ This type of bias is very difficult to detect but could still have a significant effect on the market.”
And this is the most dangerous type of bias in the hands of company as big and controlling as Google.
The European Commission is demanding the Internet giant change its ways or face a formal complaint. The Federal Trade Commission, rumored to be backing away from a staff recommendation in favor of legal action, owes the public a prosecution of Google in order to reveal the evidence it has collected.
Court is president of Consumer Watchdog, which has offices in Washington DC and Los Angeles. He is the author most recently of The Progressive’s Guide To Raising Hell (Chelsea Green).