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Fair Is Fair In Search

· April 16, 2013

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Just a couple of weeks ago I put together a brief synopsis of the now-closed Federal Trade Commission (FTC) investigation of Google, Inc. for alleged monopolization, titled Deconstructing the FTC’s Google Investigation. To make the article fit within the space constraints of the American Bar Association’s Monopoly Matters newsletter, though, a few thoughts had to be edited out. One that is particularly appropriate now is the cogent observation by former FTC Chairman Jon Leibowitz that rivals frequently operate under the “mistaken belief” that criticizing the agency “will influence the outcome in other jurisdictions.”

Last Wednesday’s PR event by the FairSearch.org coalition made that evident in spades. We’ve discussed before that use of competition law to handicap other firms, rather than removing barriers to market competition, is unabashed protectionism, which can (perhaps should) backfire. The FairSearch companies continue to insist, as the coalition’s U.S. lawyer summarized, that the FTC “did not take on the issue of search bias.” That’s hogwash. The Commission found no evidence of harm to competition and, more importantly, rejected the FairSearch call for “regulating the intricacies of Google’s search engine algorithm.” And yet like Chicken Little, these companies continue to claim the sky is falling.

Leave aside for a moment that the FairSearch media event featured four legal presenters, all of whom are supporters of its lobbying positions, instead of a “fair and balanced” debate. And forget for a moment that the European Union’s parallel investigation (wrapped in much of the secrecy typical of an EU approach to competition regulation) is some 42 months old, with a possible end just recently within sight. What is most remarkable about the denial exhibited at the FairSearch media event is its blatant internal inconsistency. Three examples of the group’s positions make this abundantly clear.

  1. “Deception” Warrants a Disclosure Remedy.  Former Assistant Attorney General Tom Barnett testified in 2011, for a founding FairSearch member, that Google acted anticompetitively because its “display of search results is deceptive to users.” FairSearch’s European counsel said the same thing recently, namely that Google “uses deceptive conduct to lockout competition in mobile.” But as I’ve noted previously, deception of this sort raises consumer protection issues, not legitimate antitrust concerns. Remarkably, Gary Reback scoffed at the reported suggestion by the EU’s Joaquin Almunia that a labeling remedy for Google’s revamped universal search results is appropriate, saying it’s “like telling McDonald’s customers they should eat healthy…it will not make a difference.” To the contrary, if deception is the problem then full disclosure has always been the answer. Where consumers are free to choose other search engines, and are told explicitly that some search results point to Google’s own “vertical” sites, whether they opt not to act is something about which competition authorities should be indifferent. Antitrust, at least in the United States, is not a Mayor Bloomberg-type vehicle for social engineering.
  2. Price Regulation Is Not the Job of Competition Enforcers.  Ironically, the newest FairSearch approach raises the even more subtle antitrust issue of whether Google can be required to sell sponsored link ads to vertical rivals like Kayak and Yelp. Known in competition parlance as a “unilateral refusal to deal,” the idea is that the remedy for Google’s preferential placement of its own services in organic search results should be a mandatory sale of ad space to purportedly “demoted” competitors. That’s hard to swallow under American antitrust doctrine, which makes unilateral refusal cases very difficult to win, described by the Supreme Court as the “outer limits” of the Sherman Act. More importantly, as Reback put it, the obligation would be to sell ad space on “reasonable and nondiscriminatory terms,” which in turn means that an enforcement agency or court would have to decide whether the ad rates charged by Google were “reasonable.” So while disclaiming an intention to create a federal search regulatory commission, the FairSearch companies are in fact doing just that. Even in price fixing cases, antitrust agencies and courts do not decide what a fair or reasonable price is, because they lack the ability to do so and because, after all, that’s the function of competition.
  3. Mobile Really Is Different.  The FairSearch event also included a competition lawyer for Nokia (Ms. Jenni Lukander), who contended that Google acted irrationally by giving away its Android mobile operating system, claiming the OS is merely a “Trojan Horse to monetize mobile markets.” So what? Providing free or open source software while profiting from ancillary products or services is a valid business strategy, pioneered by Netscape nearly 20 years ago and exemplified by Java, MySQL and numerous “freemium” sites such as Dropbox, Evernote, etc., available today. (This complaint is even stranger given that Nokia open-sourced its own mobile operating system in 2010, presumably for rational business reasons.) The FairSearch panelists argue that mobile is different because Google is supposedly “dominant” in mobile search, citing a market share of some 97%. That is both factually wrong and immaterial. Mobile is indeed different because Web search is rapidly being replaced by voice-search and app-based queries, which make any Google advantage in desktop search engines irrelevant. When Yelp gets nearby 50% of its traffic from its own smartphone app, it is impossible to seriously maintain that Google’s search engine is “diverting traffic” in the mobile space from rivals. Moreover, what the newest FairSearch complaint in Europe contends is that Google’s control over the Android OS limits OEM freedom by requiring some Google app icons (like the Google Play app store) to be displayed. As Dan Rowinski observed in readwrite mobile, that’s incorrect — “all kinds of stupid,” in his words. See Amazon’s locked-down Kindle, which runs Android without a single Google icon or app, as just one example. Most significantly, none of these vertical restrictions, even if they have the effect Nokia suggests, has any impact at all on search or search advertising in the mobile market. It is a fair conclusion that by venturing into the mobile OS arena, FairSearch is not looking for search fairness as much as to handicap and distract a rival with the threat of government regulation.

Here is how the New York Times summarized the new Android complaint by FairSearch.

The complaint was filed by Fairsearch Europe, a group of Google’s competitors, including the mobile phone maker Nokia and the software titan Microsoft, and by other companies, like Oracle. It accuses Google of using the Android software “as a deceptive way to build advantages for key Google apps in 70 percent of the smartphones shipped today,” said Thomas Vinje, the lead lawyer for Fairsearch Europe, referring to Android’s share of the smartphone market.

Any believer in the merits of competitive market economies must object to such misuse of competition laws. They should also, I suggest, react the same way to the most recent indication from Mr. Almunia that the EU’s purpose in investigating Google is to “guarantee that search results have the highest possible quality.” Nothing distills the difference between the European and American approaches to competition law as much as that revealing admission. Product quality is a function of the marketplace, not the government. And if regulation of search quality is deemed a subject warranting governmental regulation (which this author hopes never occurs), the one principle on which every objective observer would agree is that a regulatory scheme should apply uniformly to all firms in the market. That is plainly not what FairSearch strives to achieve, and thus why its proposals should be rejected by enforcement authorities worldwide.

Competition

Some, if not all of society’s most useful innovations are the byproduct of competition. In fact, although it may sound counterintuitive, innovation often flourishes when an incumbent is threatened by a new entrant because the threat of losing users to the competition drives product improvement. The Internet and the products and companies it has enabled are no exception; companies need to constantly stay on their toes, as the next startup is ready to knock them down with a better product.

Innovation

New technologies are constantly emerging that promise to change our lives for the better. These disruptive technologies give us an increase in choice, make technologies more accessible, make things more affordable, and give consumers a voice. And the pace of innovation has only quickened in recent years, as the Internet has enabled a wave of new, inter-connected devices that have benefited consumers around the world, seemingly in all aspects of their lives. Preserving an innovation-friendly market is, therefore, tantamount not only to businesses but society at large.