ANALYSIS: DOJ Investigators Involved In Antitrust Probe Don’t Appear To Be Scrutinizing Claims Of Bias In Google’s Search

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  • Investigators with the Department of Justice involved in an antitrust probe targeting Google do not appear to be scrutinizing claims that the company manipulates its search feature, leaks of the investigation and a source with knowledge indicate.  
  • Researchers and critics argue Google’s search feature is subject to manipulation and can potentially impact a national election or direct less traffic to the Silicon Valley giant’s competitors. 
  • DOJ investigators are instead focusing on Google’s ad technology and are considering whether to require the tech company to provide Android users a preference menu for potential search engines, media reports show.

Department of Justice investigators who are conducting an antitrust probe targeting Google do not appear to be scrutinizing claims that the tech giant manipulates its search function, leaks about the probe and a source familiar with it indicate.

Google critics argue that Google Search must be a focus of the investigation, pointing to the company’s sheer dominance in the market: Google consistently accounts for roughly 90% of online information searches, and company employees have expressed a willingness to artificially manipulate search results on the platform.

Google did not comment on allegations of search bias, or on the pending antitrust investigation.

“We continue to engage with the ongoing investigations led by the Department of Justice and Attorney General Paxton, and we don’t have any updates or comments on speculation,” Google spokeswoman Julie McAlister told the Daily Caller News Foundation. The company’s goal is focusing on the kind of products that serve customers and support businesses, she added.

Google’s search feature can potentially skew a major national election toward one candidate over another, according to Robert Epstein, a research psychologist at the American Institute for Behavioral Research and Technology. Research he published in 2017 suggests Google’s bias affected the vote in the 2016 election.

Epstein believes investigating Google search is “critical” to preventing widespread search bias. One Google competitor, Yelp, meanwhile, has claimed that the company gives preferential treatment to in-house products through Search, a move one of Yelp’s executives believes violates antitrust law.

Google has dismissed Epstein’s research in the past, calling it conspiracy theory-driven. The company also characterizes Search as a way to help users obtain information quickly.

“We build Google Search for our users,” a Google spokesperson told CNBC in March regarding Yelp’s claims. “People want quick access to information and we’re constantly improving Search to help people easily find what they’re looking for — whether it’s information on a web page, directions on a map, products for sale or a translation.”

Will Chamberlain, senior counsel for the Internet Accountability Project, told the Daily Caller News Foundation that the DOJ “should look closely” at possible search engine manipulation.

“We are heartened to see the Department of Justice investigating Google for its anti-competitive practices, along with various state attorneys general, who are all doing excellent work. In that investigation, DOJ should look closely at whether Google is manipulating its search algorithms: such manipulation would be the definition of anti-competitive behavior,” Chamberlain said.

Screenshot of Google CEO Sundar Pichai testifying before Congress (Screenshot/YouTube/CSPAN)

Despite concerns, it’s not clear that the DOJ is scrutinizing whether Google Search can be manipulated.

A leak to the Wall Street Journal in May indicated that the antitrust probe is centered around Google’s advertising business, though the story noted the investigation is looking broadly at search. Another leak to The New York Times in June indicated the probe’s interest in search is focused on Google’s partnership with Android, which makes Google the default search engine on its phones.

DOJ asked DuckDuckGo about requiring Google to provide Android customers a preference menu listing several potential service engines, chief executive Gabriel Weinberg told TheNYT in its June 4 report. Google provided a similar menu option to citizens in Europe in 2018 to comply with regulators who fined the company $4.9 billion for anti-competitive practices.

A source who has spoken with DOJ investigators told the Daily Caller News Foundation that their understanding is that the investigation is largely eschewing concerns about Google self-preferencing its products in its search engine.

The source, speaking on the condition of anonymity due to the sensitivity of the issue, argued that Google will be free to manipulate search results for political purposes if the DOJ doesn’t seriously probe search manipulation during the antitrust investigation. (RELATED: Google Employees Debated Burying Conservative Media In Search)

Yelp, a competitor of Google, has argued that Google is engaging in anticompetitive practices by giving preferential treatment to in-house products in its search engine, particularly within local search results.

“Google developed a separate algorithm whose sole function was to observe the organic results and ‘trigger’ Google services if links to Yelp or TripAdvisor were part of the ten blue links [on the front page of search results],” Yelp senior vice president of public policy Luther Lowe said in March while testifying before the Senate Antitrust Subcommittee.

He added: “If a service like Yelp or TripAdvisor appeared in the top 10 results, it inferred the user must be performing a local search, so it triggered a map and Google’s in-house product to physically push down the merit-based results.”

Lowe pointed to a 2012 memo from the Federal Trade Commission which found that when “Google’s algorithms deemed a comparison shopping website relevant to a user’s query, Google automatically returned Google Product Search — above any rival comparison shopping websites.”

Epstein’s research, meanwhile, suggests Google Search could negatively impact President Donald Trump’s re-election campaign.

Epstein and his researchers recruited 95 monitors in 24 states who captured more than 13,000 sets of search rankings and the 98,000 pages to which they linked. Such searches were related to the election and were more likely to produce links to pages showing a favorable impression of former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton than to ones favorable to Trump, Epstein said in 2017 when his research was published.

WASHINGTON, DC - JUNE 17: U.S. President Donald Trump speaks during an East Room event to announce the “PREVENTS Task Force” at the White House June 17, 2020 in Washington, DC. President Trump held the event to announce plans to prevent suicides among U.S. military veterans. (Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images)

President Donald Trump speaks during an East Room event. (Alex Wong/Getty Images)

Epstein had another group of researchers use a point scale to rate the alleged bias of the articles found on the first page of the search results, CNN reported in 2019. A heavily pro-Trump article, for instance, would get a minus 5, while a heavily pro-Clinton article would get a plus 5, according to CNN’s report.

His group found that Google’s results were more pro-Clinton, in both red states and blue states. He extrapolated his past research to determine that such searches could potentially affect up to 10.4 million votes.

“Investigating bias or favoritism in Google’s search engine — however it might be caused — is critically important because extensive research shows the power that such favoritism has in shifting the opinions and votes and people who are undecided,” Epstein told the DCNF.

“Every serious investigation of bias in Google search that I am aware of has found overwhelming evidence of systematic bias that favors Google,” he said before listing the Federal Trade Commission’s 2012 investigation into Google as an example. Google has not responded to comments about Epstein’s claims.

The FTC concluded a 2012 investigation into Google’s search engine in 2013, noting that “we have not found sufficient evidence that Google manipulates its search algorithms.” Documents later leaked to The Wall Street Journal in 2015 showed FTC staff recommended bringing a case against Google.

Tech website The Information reported later in June that the DOJ’s lawyers’ “specific target” appears to be “whether the Google technology that many companies use to buy, sell and place ads around the internet leads to higher prices.” The Information argued that a probe focused on ad tech would play to the company’s advantage because Google is not dominant in that industry.

The DOJ didn’t respond to the DCNF’s repeated requests for comment, and Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton’s office refused to address questions about the agency’s handling of Google’s search engine. Paxton is heading the attorneys general antitrust probe alongside the DOJ.

Republican Missouri Sen. Josh Hawley similarly said on Tuesday that the DOJ investigation into Google needs to focus on Google Search, adding that he has “called on” Attorney General Bill Barr to make sure that’s the case.

“This is why Search should be included in DOJ antitrust investigation, and I’ve called on AG Barr to do so,” Hawley tweeted Tuesday in response to reports that Google demonetized conservative website The Federalist. The tech company later disputed that claim, arguing instead that the conservative outlet would be given an opportunity to address issues with its comment section  before getting banned.

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