Agence France-Presse |
Google faces a moment of truth in the coming weeks over a lengthy US probe into potential abuse of its Internet search dominance, amid regulatory woes on both sides of the Atlantic.
The Federal Trade Commission is widely reported to be nearing a decision on whether to pursue Google for monopoly abuses, at the same time European regulators are conducting a similar review.
At least one member of Congress is warning the FTC to be wary of meddling in Googleâ€™s business, but some of Googleâ€™s rivals are pressing hard for action.
Critics point out that Google controls some 70 percent of the Internet search market â€” and the advertising that goes along with it â€” and may exert even more power in the mobile sector by controlling the Android operating system used on two-thirds of smartphones.
â€œThese are practices which drive up prices and drive down competition,â€ said Ben Hammer, whose Fairsearch.org coalition includes the travel websites Expedia and Kayak, mobile phone maker Nokia, and Microsoft, a company which faced its own antitrust case over a decade ago.
Google is accused of â€œscrapingâ€ content from other services like travel and restaurant reviews while keeping consumers on its own sites.
It is also under fire for allegedly promoting its own services â€” including travel, restaurant reviews and YouTube videos â€” in its search results.
Another of Google criticsâ€™ concerns is the way the company limits how advertisers can manage ads with Google and competitors.
â€œThey remind me a lot of Microsoft in the 90s: massively arrogant, having the feeling they have the power to do anything they want,â€ said Rob Enderle, a Silicon Valley consultant and analyst.
â€œCompanies that get this way eventually run afoul of the government, sometimes catastrophically. They havenâ€™t been competing fairly for some time.â€
Googleâ€™s problems are not limited to Washington.
Google has also made proposals to regulators in the EU anti-trust probe into whether the Internet search giant had abused its dominant market position, which officials called â€œa good basis for further talks.â€
But in the US, a case from trade regulators would not be clear cut, say some analysts.
Danny Sullivan, who edits the blog Search Engine Land, said it is problematic for regulators to determine whether a search is â€œfair.â€
Even if Google searches favor its own sites, â€œitâ€™s probably not wrong,â€ said Sullivan, who argued that the case offers a test of freedom of expression.
Sullivan said those seeking to impose â€œneutralâ€ search results suggest a scary type of regulation: â€œItâ€™s like saying the New York Times algorithm should be decided by a government committee. Nobody should question that the government should stay out.â€
Last year, Google chairman Eric Schmidt told a congressional panel he rejected charges that the company â€œcooksâ€ search results to favor its own services, even though some lawmakers disputed the claim.
Glenn Manishin, a Washington antitrust lawyer who represented plaintiffs in the Microsoft antitrust case, said a case against Google would be â€œunchartedâ€ legal territory, and markedly different from the Microsoft case.
â€œThereâ€™s a fundamental difference between an operating system which has the ability and technology to exclude rivals from the platform, and Internet search or search advertising,â€ he said.
â€œThereâ€™s nothing locking users into using Google either for search or for advertisingâ€¦ itâ€™s not a single highway to get to where youâ€™re going. Windows was, because it was on 95 percent of PCs. Other companies can and do enter the search market.â€
Manishin said antitrust law is aimed at protecting consumers, not rival companies. He said the FTC could pursue Google administratively for â€œunfair competition,â€ but added legal standards are vague and the agency has never won such a case.
â€œIf you ask for the government to intervene, you donâ€™t know whatâ€™s going to happen,â€ the attorney said. â€œThe government may decide it will be the arbiter of whatâ€™s fair and unfair, and it may be a slippery slope toward government regulation.â€
US Congressman Jared Polis, in an open letter to the FTC, urged the agency not to act to â€œcompromise the important service provided by Google.â€
â€œCompetition is only a click away, and there are no barriers to competition,â€ the lawmaker said.
â€œThe FTC should tread carefully when reviewing Google, Facebook or any other tech company, given the dynamism of our tech industry.â€
Many legal experts say Google would lose in the marketplace if it failed to act in consumersâ€™ interest, but Mark Patterson, a Fordham University law professor specializing in antitrust, said consumers lack the information to know how Google operates.
â€œWhat you really need to look at is how much can they manipulate their search results without consumers knowing,â€ he said.
â€œYes itâ€™s easy for consumers to switch. Itâ€™s not easy for consumers to know why they should switch.â€