According to many news reports, The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) has finalized its plans to ramp up an ongoing investigation into search engine giant Google. The Commission has some antitrust concerns surrounding Google’s search engine rankings and advertisements. The Wall Street Journal broke the story Thursday morning. According to the report, the FTC investigation will revolve around:
fundamental issues relating to Google’s core search advertising business, which still accounts for the overwhelming majority of its revenues. Those will include whether Google—which accounts for around two-thirds of internet searches in the U.S. and more abroad—unfairly channels users to its own growing network of services at the expense of rivals.
TechCrunch writer Erick Schonfeld highlighted the most egregious of Google’s anticompetitive practices. As he argues, Google regularly gives precedent to companies who list their service on Google Places. Ask Yelp! what they think of this–it’s been a concern of theirs for some time now. In several tests, the top seven “natural” search results all had Places listings–a bit hard to believe, says Schonfeld, of a product still in it’s infancy.
In their own defense, the company’s press team said about Google Places: “its all about the best answers for users.” For those of us that remember Google’s supposedly “populist” support for net neutrality, hearing them defend the practice of prioritizing their own services on a search where they own nearly 75 percent market share, well you can’t help but laugh.
But highlighting Places listings is just one among many examples sure to give the FTC work for the coming months or even years. Online travel agencies (OTAs) are already complaining that Google is starting to rank its own flight and hotel finding services above naturally better results. As Google builds itself into more products (iPhones, iPads, Safari, Chrome, and Android, to name a few) and expands it’s services to almost every popular search item (think YouTube, Gmail, travel booking, movie show times, etc.), the danger of less choice for consumers grows larger.
Some would argue that so long as the regulatory environment is limited and the market is open these problems will work themselves out naturally. But when you combine the practice of determining what should and should not be important to users and an ever-expanding market share with a frighteningly cozy relationship with the current political administration, you don’t have to don a tinfoil hat to see where this could go.
The laundry list of connections between the search masterminds and the Obama administration seems to get longer by the day. Consumer advocacy group Consumer Watchdog exposed what they call a special deal between Google and NASA to use a private NASA airfield for their corporate jets. Politico ran a story exposing a special ad program given to the Obama campaign, but denied to GOP candidates. Then there are the more obvious issues like current Google higher-ups sitting on various regularly used “advisory councils” to the President or ex-Google execs serving in paid positions in the administration.
The cozy ties between the Obama administration and Google are enough to raise the eyebrows of Consumer Watchdog’s Jamie Court and John M. Simpson. In a letter this morning to the White House ethics chair, the group wrote:
It is clear that hardworking dedicated federal employees are pursuing significant investigations into Google’s activities. Unfortunately when top Administration officials entertain Google executives, it undercuts those investigations by sending the implicit message that the Administration supports Google.
We ask that you render a formal opinion that the President and other top Administration officials must step back and assume a neutral position so the various investigations into Google’s activities can be concluded in a fair and professional manner.
But all of these accusations are as hard to prove as they sound. It’s unlikely that Google execs will be too forthright, even if they are subpoenaed. More unlikely still that Google will break open its search algorithm to anyone, even if it could prove their unlikely innocence. And if Google’s friendliness with the Obama administration foreshadows anything, the FTC investigation is more likely a way to look tough, most likely carrying limited or no consequences.
Zack Christenson is a Chicago-based digital strategist who writes on tech policy and blogs for the American Consumer Institute at www.theamericanconsumer.org.