A Recap of the Google Senate Hearing and the Search for Competition

Yesterday afternoon, Google‘s, chief executive Eric Schmidt made his appearance before the Senate Judiciary Committee’s antitrust subcommittee. The discussion revolved around Google’s questionable use of algorithm-tweaking to prioritize their own offerings above other results. An often-cited example has the Google user searching for a restaurant. Google’s tweaks give priority to those restaurants with a registered Google Places page. Other instances of the prioritizing are seen in movie searches, directions, and soon will surely include Google Deals and Google’s forthcoming online travel agency.

It didn’t take long for Schmidt to feel the heat from today’s panel. Senator Mike Lee (R-UT) led off with this from his opening statement:

“Whether or not Google formally qualifies as a monopoly under our antitrust laws, one thing is clear: given its significant ability to steer e-commerce and the flow of online information, Google is in a position to help determine who will succeed and who will fail on the Internet.  In the words of the head of Google’s search ranking team, Google is “the biggest kingmaker on the Earth.”

Joining Mr. Schmidt on yesterday’s panel were some representatives from the companies adversely affected by Google’s anti-consumer actions. Representing Nextag, a price comparison site, was its CEO Jeffrey Katz. Alongside Katz, and representing independent small business review site, Yelp!, was its CEO Jeremy Stoppelman. While Katz and Stoppelman hardly represent the size and scope of the businesses that Google’s practices affect, they share one commonality–both sites exist to serve the interests of consumers. Yelp! provides unbiased reviews of all sorts of businesses and Nextag helps consumers to find the best deal on any given product. Both companies represent the sort of neutrality and lack of bias that Google has started to exemplify.

Schmidt spent the bulk of his opening statement making veiled references to the last big tech company to find itself in a similar situation. Though he didn’t ever say the word Microsoft, he pleaded to the committee not to let “one company’s past … be another company’s future.”

After the prepared opening statements, it was time for Google to face the direct questions. Most vigilant amongst the questioners was Democratic Senator Herb Kohl, who likely made some friends quickly as he brought out the day’s second Reagan reference asking is “trusting Google to do the right thing sufficient?” It’s certainly that question at the crux of this debate for many. He furthered that perhaps we ought to take Reagan’s advice and “trust but verify.”

Mike Lee jumped back in line to demonstrate the problems that he sees. Talking about a number of searches he had done, Lee didn’t pull any punches:

“It seems to me, for whatever it’s worth, when I see this, when I see you magically coming up third every time, that seems to me, I don’t know if you call this a separate algorithm, or whether you’ve reverse engineered one algorithm, but either way, you’ve cooked it so that you’re always third!”

After Rep. Amy Klobuchar asked Schmidt about whether companies deserve and require transparency in search results, Sen. John Cornyn from Texas revisited Google’s recent mishap with illegal prescription drugs, and Sen. Al Franken from Minnesota professed “I love Google!”, it was time to hear from the other companies on the panel.

“We run the company for the benefit of consumers and frankly not for the other websites,” said Schmidt in an early statement about Google. Taking exception to Schmidt, though, was Yelp!’s Stoppelman. “It has little to do with helping consumers get to the best information,” Stoppelman said. “It has everything to do with generating more revenue.”

Nextag’s Katz illustrated the harm that Google does as a firsthand experience. “Google rigs its results… against competitors like us,” said Katz of Google’s own service, Google Shopping.

One sticky subject that came up several times during the day’s events was a quote by Google’s own Marissa Mayer:

[When] we roll[ed] out Google Finance, we did put the Google link first. It seems only fair right, we do all the work for the search page and all these other things, so we do put it first… That has actually been our policy, since then, because of Finance. So for Google Maps again, it’s the first link.

The quote was pulled out on a number of occasions as clear evidence that Google made non-neutral search a simple part of policy. Schmidt had little to offer in the way of a response beyond the obligatory, “I’ll let Marissa speak for herself, but…”

The proceedings didn’t produce much in the way of answers, but certainly illustrated the bi-partisan frustration about Google’s anti-consumer actions. Putting a bow on things was Connecticut Senator Richard Blumenthal who said:

You run the racetrack. You own the racetrack. For a long time, you didn’t have any horses,” Blumenthal said. “Now you have horses … and your horses seem to be winning.

For many, the concern about algorithm-tweaking is less about Google Places and more about the potential next steps of this sort of algorithm tweaking and how they might affect consumers. What, for instance, would we think had Google begun to push Perry for President websites and stories to the top, and Obama campaign websites to the bottom?

When all was said and done it turned out that Google’s Chairman did exactly what we expected would be done. The longtime left-leaning company–the one with the intimate ties to the Obama administration–tried to use pro-consumer, pro-market rhetoric to reinvent itself over the course of one hearing.

Zack Christenson is a Chicago-based digital strategist who writes on tech policy.

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