Google’s competitors are finally beginning to take a stand against the search and advertising monopoly. The local search engine and review site Yelp just filed an antitrust complaint in Europe. As The Daily Caller reported last week, Yelp, TripAdvisor, and a number of consumer organizations have begun to target ads at Google employees that highlight the company’s unfair practices.
In 2013, the Federal Trade Commission dropped its investigation into charges that Google unfairly biased its search results to gain a competitive advantage over competitors. Many critics attributed this decision to Google’s close relationship with the Obama administration. However, with a different administration and other developments over the last five years (including a record antitrust fine from the European Commission in 2017), there is hope that the tech titan will finally be accountable for its monopolistic practices.
The message of Google’s critics is simple: Google has created a great product by being able to tailor content based on its users’ individual needs. However, Google is abandoning its initial mission of serving the interests of the web browsing public by manipulating its search platform to favor its own content, specifically Google+ reviews, which it places in its “Google One Box,” giving it far more attention than its competitors.
Yelp and TripAdvisor are not disinterested parties, and so their arguments should not be taken at face value. Nonetheless, they raise a serious issue. Google controls over 90% of the search market in the U.S. and can make or break any business by altering how it appears in the search results.
There’s nothing inherently wrong with Google having a monopoly. As the Supreme Court has held, market dominance created “as a consequence of a superior product, business acumen” or even “historical accident” is not illegal. Peter Thiel has similarly argued that a monopoly created by “to the extent that it does something others cannot” is actually beneficial to the economy. And there’s no question that Google became the dominant search engine by creating a superior product on a level playing field.
The problem is that Google uses its fairly won dominance as a search engine to tilt the playing field in other markets. Google does not use its search algorithm to determine which restaurant and retailer reviews are given prime placement in its One Box. Instead, it reserves top placement for its own reviews. In doing so, it places its own interest as a monopolist ahead of the interest of consumers in obtaining accurate information.
Google may or may not have better local search and review platform than Yelp and TripAdvisor. However, because most people find these reviews due to the fact that Google gives them preferential placement, Google’s advantage comes from its search monopoly, not from a superior product.
Yelp and TripAdvisor are not the only victim of this manipulation. Google prioritizes its own shopping service, flights, hotel bookings and maps in its results. Again, Google may have a better product in any of these services, but consumers should be able to make these decisions in a truly competitive marketplace.
The travel website Skift wrote that “in targeting Google employees on popular social media platforms, Yelp may be taking a page out of Russia’s tactics to influence U.S. voters in the 2016 presidential campaign — albeit without the disinformation campaign. But the Russians’ social media efforts do prove that these platforms can be very influential in swaying the opinions of a targeted group of people.”
Of course, Yelp did not take a page out of Russia’s playbook, but from the business strategy of Google, which is the largest purveyor of targeted ads. Still, the hysteria about Russian “misinformation” is relevant to the Yelp’s complaint in one important respect. As I noted in a previous piece, Eric Schmidt, CEO of Google’s parent company Alphabet, said that fighting the “rise of misinformation” and controlling “how people get their information, what they believe, what they don’t, is, I think, the project for the next decade.” Google had used the One Box not only to favor its own Google+ reviews, but also to falsely accuse conservative news sites, including The Daily Caller, of spreading misinformation.
Google’s search manipulation goes far beyond just dollars and cents. Just as Google can manipulate its search results to pick economic winners and losers, it can also benefit its favored political candidates and ideology. The search engine has teamed up with far-left organizations like the Southern Poverty Law Center to censor what it deems “hate speech” and The Poynter Institute, which counts George Soros as major donor, to fight “misinformation.”
Ted Cruz recently argued that we need “need to have serious consideration about the massive power we’re seeing of these tech companies to subvert our democratic process,” including the use of antitrust laws. Conservative websites do not directly compete against Google and thus would be unlikely to succeed in an antitrust suit against the search giant. But the mortal threat to conservatives and dissenting voices across the ideological spectrum underscores the danger of Google’s potential abuse of its monopoly status. Holding Google accountable for its anti-competitive economic behavior and demanding transparency about its algorithm are therefore essential to ensuring competition in both the marketplace of idea and the economic marketplace.
Noah Peters is an attorney in Washington, D.C.
The views and opinions expressed in this commentary are those of the author and do not reflect the official position of The Daily Caller.