Google “Google” and you’ll see results for the company’s many services, from Google News to Google Maps. Google something else entirely, and there’s still a good chance you’ll be directed to one of those services - too good of a chance, according to the Federal Trade Commission.
The FTC is believed to be in the process of preparing an antitrust complaint against Google, on the grounds that it uses its dominance in the search engine market to promote its other services by altering its algorithms to boost their prominence in its results pages. Google claims that it does not privilege results for its own services and that, even if it did, doing so would not be illegal.
With 65 percent of the search engine market share, Google completes more searches for customers than all of its competitors combined. However, what the FTC fails to consider is that the reason Google has attracted so many users is that it is consistently able to deliver results that those users find relevant.
This is exactly the point made by Rep. Jared Polis, D-Colo., in a recent open letter to FTC Chairman Jon Leibowitz. Because Google’s services, for the most part, amount to no more than elaborate sequences of zeros and ones, “there are no barriers to competition,” he writes. “Competition,” he said, “is only a click away.”
There are already plenty of other places to click. These include other search engines, such as Bing (easily reachable by typing “Bing” into a Google search bar), and websites like Amazon that specialize in searches for particular purposes, such as shopping. If users find that Google too often suggests its own services, they can easily switch to one of these other providers.
Online superpowers rise and fall quickly, with no need for outside intervention. As Polis, who is also the founder of ProFlowers and several other technology start-ups, pointed out, many of the dominant firms of the recent past, such as AOL, MySpace and Yahoo, have already lost that dominance. Google executives know that, if they stop serving their customers, the double “o” logo will soon be as obsolete as the phrase “You’ve got mail.”
As I have written before in discussing the government’s decision to “protect” customers from the proposed merger of AT&T and T-Mobile, the current administration’s approach to preserving options seems to boil down to taking away the options people are most interested in.
The FTC could find more useful places to devote its resources. Consider college athletics, for example, as I suggested back in 2009. While college athletes, like other students, have plenty of choices for which search engine to use for last-minute research, on the football field or the basketball court, their options disappear. No matter what school they decide to attend, their compensation is controlled by the National Collegiate Athletic Association. And through the NCAA, colleges have reached the convenient conclusion that it is in everyone’s best interest to pay athletes only in scholarships. If this sounds like collusion, that’s because it is. But a lawsuit filed by players is still pending. Meanwhile, the NCAA, so skilled at striking the deals that allow it to control players, may convince Congress to grant it an exemption from antitrust laws.
Looking at who filed the complaints in these two cases yields a valuable lesson. In the case of the NCAA, the complaints came from the student athletes, the ones who have been deprived of choice. In the case of Google, the complaints came from competitors. These companies’ real problem, it seems, is not that customers do not have choices, but rather that customers aren’t choosing them.
If Google’s competitors are right, and Google really is altering search results for its own advantage, users will soon defect on their own. The FTC would do a greater public service by protecting the interests of student athletes who have nowhere else to go.