The recent attention on Google’s vulnerability to antitrust enforcement by the Federal Trade Commission and European Commission has brought out the usual responses from Google and from the antitrust naysayers on the right.
Google’s response to every criticism is that choice is just one click away and (as they claimed in a response to an article that appeared in the Wall Street Journal) that they “build search to help users, not for websites.”
The antitrust deniers — those who believe that the antitrust laws and jurisprudence that have been carefully developed over the last century are completely illegitimate — cannot bring themselves to admit that any dominant company is not just one better idea away from going out of business.
In the real world, dominant companies and monopolies like Google can retain their market dominance legally through better innovation and better service, or illegally by using their dominance to punish nascent and direct competitors, thwart innovation and deceive consumers.
The antitrust regime has been developed to judge the facts and protect consumers who may not even know that a monopoly is harming them. Google is the latest test case of that proposition. While there are extremists on both sides of the issue, there are also voices of reason from both political philosophies who see a limited role for antitrust in this case.
First of all, let’s all grow up. Google does not build search for users. Google builds search to make billions of dollars in annual profits from advertising. There’s nothing inherently wrong with that – as long as Google is not violating antitrust laws by leveraging its monopoly power to maintain or extend its dominance into new markets.
Google can claim that they don’t manipulate their algorithm to benefit their own products at the expense of competitors, but that claim rings hollow when the company refuses to let in the smallest sliver of sunlight on how and why they make changes to their super-secret algorithm.
The anti-antitrust argument goes like this: Why shouldn’t Google be allowed to bias the results to favor their products? After all, Google is a business operating in the free market? The consumer doesn’t have to use Google. Well, that’s at least an argument – and it’s up to the agencies enforcing the law, and the courts that review those decisions, to decide if the argument holds water.
The problem with that argument is that it assumes that the consumer knows that Google manipulates the results. The fact is that consumers are largely unaware that Google can and does bias its search algorithm to benefit its own, often inferior products at the expense of competitors with better products.
When a person types in a search term, they assume that the results are strictly based on some objective, unbiased, magical math problem that spits out the best answers in order. When I made that point in a recent radio interview, a few callers changed their minds about Google because they just didn’t know that Google routinely makes adjustments to the algorithm and that those changes can have immediate, dramatic impact on a company.
Most Google users also do not know that the company uses one algorithm to decide how to display its own properties at or near the top of its display of results, and another algorithm for everyone else’s website.