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What happened

Today, following a six year investigation into Google’s business practices in India, the Competition Commission of India (CCI) issued its ruling.

Two things, in particular, are remarkable about the decision. First, while the CCI’s staff recommended a finding of liability on a litany of claims (the exact number is difficult to infer from the Commission’s decision, but it appears to be somewhere in the double digits), the Commission accepted its staff’s recommendation on only three — and two of those involve conduct no longer employed by Google.

Second, nothing in the Commission’s finding of liability or in the remedy it imposes suggests it approaches the issue as the EU does. To be sure, the CCI employs rhetoric suggesting that “search bias” can be anticompetitive. But its focus remains unwaveringly on the welfare of the consumer, not on the hyperbolic claims of Google’s competitors.

What didn’t happen

In finding liability on only a single claim involving ongoing practices — the claim arising from Google’s “unfair” placement of its specialized flight search (Google Flights) results — the Commission also roundly rejected a host of other claims (more than once with strong words directed at its staff for proposing such woefully unsupported arguments). Among these are several that have been raised (and unanimously rejected) by competition regulators elsewhere in the world. These claims related to a host of Google’s practices, including:

  • Search bias involving the treatment of specialized Google content (like Google Maps, YouTube, Google Reviews, etc.) other than Google Flights
  • Search bias involving the display of Universal Search results (including local search, news search, image search, etc.), except where these results are fixed to a specific position on every results page (as was the case in India before 2010), instead of being inserted wherever most appropriate in context
  • Search bias involving OneBox results (instant answers to certain queries that are placed at the top of search results pages), even where answers are drawn from Google’s own content and specific, licensed sources (rather than from crawling the web)
  • Search bias involving sponsored, vertical search results (e.g., Google Shopping results) other than Google Flights. These results are not determined by the same algorithm that returns organic results, but are instead more like typical paid search advertising results that sometimes appear at the top of search results pages. The Commission did find that Google’s treatment of its Google Flight results (another form of sponsored result) violated India’s competition laws
  • The operation of Google’s advertising platform (AdWords), including the use of a “Quality Score” in its determination of an ad’s relevance (something Josh Wright and I discuss at length here)
  • Google’s practice of allowing advertisers to bid on trademarked keywords
  • Restrictions placed by Google upon the portability of advertising campaign data to other advertising platforms through its AdWords API
  • Distribution agreements that set Google as the default (but not exclusive) search engine on certain browsers
  • Certain restrictions in syndication agreements with publishers (websites) through which Google provides search and/or advertising (Google’s AdSense offering). The Commission found that negotiated search agreements that require Google to be the exclusive search provider on certain sites did violate India’s competition laws. It should be noted, however, that Google has very few of these agreements, and no longer enters into them, so the finding is largely historical. All of the other assertions regarding these agreements (and there were numerous claims involving a number of clauses in a range of different agreements) were rejected by the Commission.

Just like competition authorities in the US, Canada, and Taiwan that have properly focused on consumer welfare in their Google investigations, the CCI found important consumer benefits from these practices that outweigh any inconveniences they may impose on competitors. And, just as in those jurisdictions, all of them were rejected by the Commission.

Still improperly assessing Google’s dominance

The biggest problem with the CCI’s decision is its acceptance — albeit moderated in important ways — of the notion that Google owes a special duty to competitors given its position as an alleged “gateway” to the Internet:

In the present case, since Google is the gateway to the internet for a vast majority of internet users, due to its dominance in the online web search market, it is under an obligation to discharge its special responsibility. As Google has the ability and the incentive to abuse its dominant position, its “special responsibility” is critical in ensuring not only the fairness of the online web search and search advertising markets, but also the fairness of all online markets given that these are primarily accessed through search engines. (para 202)

As I’ve discussed before, a proper analysis of the relevant markets in which Google operates would make clear that Google is beset by actual and potential competitors at every turn. Access to consumers by advertisers, competing search services, other competing services, mobile app developers, and the like is readily available. The lines between markets drawn by the CCI are based on superficial distinctions that are of little importance to the actual relevant market.

Consider, for example: Users seeking product information can get it via search, but also via Amazon and Facebook; advertisers can place ad copy and links in front of millions of people on search results pages, and they can also place them in front of millions of people on Facebook and Twitter. Meanwhile, many specialized search competitors like Yelp receive most of their traffic from direct navigation and from their mobile apps. In short, the assumption of market dominance made by the CCI (and so many others these days) is based on a stilted conception of the relevant market, as Google is far from the only channel through which competitors can reach consumers.

The importance of innovation in the CCI’s decision

Of course, it’s undeniable that Google is an important mechanism by which competitors reach consumers. And, crucially, nowhere did the CCI adopt Google’s critics’ and competitors’ frequently asserted position that Google is, in effect, an “essential facility” requiring extremely demanding limitations on its ability to control its product when doing so might impede its rivals.

So, while the CCI defines the relevant markets and adopts legal conclusions that confer special importance on Google’s operation of its general search results pages, it stops short of demanding that Google treat competitors on equal terms to its own offerings, as would typically be required of essential facilities (or their close cousin, public utilities).

Significantly, the Commission weighs the imposition of even these “special responsibilities” against the effects of such duties on innovation, particularly with respect to product design.

The CCI should be commended for recognizing that any obligation imposed by antitrust law on a dominant company to refrain from impeding its competitors’ access to markets must stop short of requiring the company to stop innovating, even when its product innovations might make life difficult for its competitors.

Of course, some product design choices can be, on net, anticompetitive. But innovation generally benefits consumers, and it should be impeded only where doing so clearly results in net consumer harm. Thus:

[T]he Commission is cognizant of the fact that any intervention in technology markets has to be carefully crafted lest it stifles innovation and denies consumers the benefits that such innovation can offer. This can have a detrimental effect on economic welfare and economic growth, particularly in countries relying on high growth such as India…. [P]roduct design is an important and integral dimension of competition and any undue intervention in designs of SERP [Search Engine Results Pages] may affect legitimate product improvements resulting in consumer harm. (paras 203-04).

As a consequence of this cautious approach, the CCI refused to accede to its staff’s findings of liability based on Google’s treatment of its vertical search results without considering how Google’s incorporation of these specialized results improved its product for consumers. Thus, for example:

The Commission is of opinion that requiring Google to show third-party maps may cause a delay in response time (“latency”) because these maps reside on third-party servers…. Further, requiring Google to show third-party maps may break the connection between Google’s local results and the map…. That being so, the Commission is of the view that no case of contravention of the provisions of the Act is made out in Google showing its own maps along with local search results. The Commission also holds that the same consideration would apply for not showing any other specialised result designs from third parties. (para 224 (emphasis added))

The CCI’s laudable and refreshing focus on consumer welfare

Even where the CCI determined that Google’s current practices violate India’s antitrust laws (essentially only with respect to Google Flights), it imposed a remedy that does not demand alteration of the overall structure of Google’s search results, nor its algorithmic placement of those results. In fact, the most telling indication that India’s treatment of product design innovation embodies a consumer-centric approach markedly different from that pushed by Google’s competitors (and adopted by the EU) is its remedy.

Following its finding that

[p]rominent display and placement of Commercial Flight Unit with link to Google’s specialised search options/ services (Flight) amounts to an unfair imposition upon users of search services as it deprives them of additional choices (para 420),

the CCI determined that the appropriate remedy for this defect was:

So far as the contravention noted by the Commission in respect of Flight Commercial Unit is concerned, the Commission directs Google to display a disclaimer in the commercial flight unit box indicating clearly that the “search flights” link placed at the bottom leads to Google’s Flights page, and not the results aggregated by any other third party service provider, so that users are not misled. (para 422 (emphasis added))

Indeed, what is most notable — and laudable — about the CCI’s decision is that both the alleged problem, as well as the proposed remedy, are laser-focused on the effect on consumers — not the welfare of competitors.

Where the EU’s recent Google Shopping decision considers that this sort of non-neutral presentation of Google search results harms competitors and demands equal treatment by Google of rivals seeking access to Google’s search results page, the CCI sees instead that non-neutral presentation of results could be confusing to consumers. It does not demand that Google open its doors to competitors, but rather that it more clearly identify when its product design prioritizes Google’s own content rather than determine priority based on its familiar organic search results algorithm.

This distinction is significant. For all the language in the decision asserting Google’s dominance and suggesting possible impediments to competition, the CCI does not, in fact, view Google’s design of its search results pages as a contrivance intended to exclude competitors from accessing markets.

The CCI’s remedy suggests that it has no problem with Google maintaining control over its search results pages and determining what results, and in what order, to serve to consumers. Its sole concern, rather, is that Google not get a leg up at the expense of consumers by misleading them into thinking that its product design is something that it is not.

Rather than dictate how Google should innovate or force it to perpetuate an outdated design in the name of preserving access by competitors bent on maintaining the status quo, the Commission embraces the consumer benefits of Google’s evolving products, and seeks to impose only a narrowly targeted tweak aimed directly at the quality of consumers’ interactions with Google’s products.

Conclusion

As some press accounts of the CCI’s decision trumpet, the Commission did impose liability on Google for abuse of a dominant position. But its similarity with the EU’s abuse of dominance finding ends there. The CCI rejected many more claims than it adopted, and it carefully tailored its remedy to the welfare of consumers, not the lamentations of competitors. Unlike the EU, the CCI’s finding of a violation is tempered by its concern for avoiding harmful constraints on innovation and product design, and its remedy makes this clear. Whatever the defects of India’s decision, it offers a welcome return to consumer-centric antitrust.

The populists are on the march, and as the 2018 campaign season gets rolling we’re witnessing more examples of political opportunism bolstered by economic illiteracy aimed at increasingly unpopular big tech firms.

The latest example comes in the form of a new investigation of Google opened by Missouri’s Attorney General, Josh Hawley. Mr. Hawley — a Republican who, not coincidentally, is running for Senate in 2018alleges various consumer protection violations and unfair competition practices.

But while Hawley’s investigation may jump start his campaign and help a few vocal Google rivals intent on mobilizing the machinery of the state against the company, it is unlikely to enhance consumer welfare — in Missouri or anywhere else.  

According to the press release issued by the AG’s office:

[T]he investigation will seek to determine if Google has violated the Missouri Merchandising Practices Act—Missouri’s principal consumer-protection statute—and Missouri’s antitrust laws.  

The business practices in question are Google’s collection, use, and disclosure of information about Google users and their online activities; Google’s alleged misappropriation of online content from the websites of its competitors; and Google’s alleged manipulation of search results to preference websites owned by Google and to demote websites that compete with Google.

Mr. Hawley’s justification for his investigation is a flourish of populist rhetoric:

We should not just accept the word of these corporate giants that they have our best interests at heart. We need to make sure that they are actually following the law, we need to make sure that consumers are protected, and we need to hold them accountable.

But Hawley’s “strong” concern is based on tired retreads of the same faulty arguments that Google’s competitors (Yelp chief among them), have been plying for the better part of a decade. In fact, all of his apparent grievances against Google were exhaustively scrutinized by the FTC and ultimately rejected or settled in separate federal investigations in 2012 and 2013.

The antitrust issues

To begin with, AG Hawley references the EU antitrust investigation as evidence that

this is not the first-time Google’s business practices have come into question. In June, the European Union issued Google a record $2.7 billion antitrust fine.

True enough — and yet, misleadingly incomplete. Missing from Hawley’s recitation of Google’s antitrust rap sheet are the following investigations, which were closed without any finding of liability related to Google Search, Android, Google’s advertising practices, etc.:

  • United States FTC, 2013. The FTC found no basis to pursue a case after a two-year investigation: “Challenging Google’s product design decisions in this case would require the Commission — or a court — to second-guess a firm’s product design decisions where plausible procompetitive justifications have been offered, and where those justifications are supported by ample evidence.” The investigation did result in a consent order regarding patent licensing unrelated in any way to search and a voluntary commitment by Google not to engage in certain search-advertising-related conduct.
  • South Korea FTC, 2013. The KFTC cleared Google after a two-year investigation. It opened a new investigation in 2016, but, as I have discussed, “[i]f anything, the economic conditions supporting [the KFTC’s 2013] conclusion have only gotten stronger since.”
  • Canada Competition Bureau, 2016. The CCB closed a three-year long investigation into Google’s search practices without taking any action.

Similar investigations have been closed without findings of liability (or simply lie fallow) in a handful of other countries (e.g., Taiwan and Brazil) and even several states (e.g., Ohio and Texas). In fact, of all the jurisdictions that have investigated Google, only the EU and Russia have actually assessed liability.

As Beth Wilkinson, outside counsel to the FTC during the Google antitrust investigation, noted upon closing the case:

Undoubtedly, Google took aggressive actions to gain advantage over rival search providers. However, the FTC’s mission is to protect competition, and not individual competitors. The evidence did not demonstrate that Google’s actions in this area stifled competition in violation of U.S. law.

The CCB was similarly unequivocal in its dismissal of the very same antitrust claims Missouri’s AG seems intent on pursuing against Google:

The Bureau sought evidence of the harm allegedly caused to market participants in Canada as a result of any alleged preferential treatment of Google’s services. The Bureau did not find adequate evidence to support the conclusion that this conduct has had an exclusionary effect on rivals, or that it has resulted in a substantial lessening or prevention of competition in a market.

Unfortunately, rather than follow the lead of these agencies, Missouri’s investigation appears to have more in common with Russia’s effort to prop up a favored competitor (Yandex) at the expense of consumer welfare.

The Yelp Claim

Take Mr. Hawley’s focus on “Google’s alleged misappropriation of online content from the websites of its competitors,” for example, which cleaves closely to what should become known henceforth as “The Yelp Claim.”

While the sordid history of Yelp’s regulatory crusade against Google is too long to canvas in its entirety here, the primary elements are these:

Once upon a time (in 2005), Google licensed Yelp’s content for inclusion in its local search results. In 2007 Yelp ended the deal. By 2010, and without a license from Yelp (asserting fair use), Google displayed small snippets of Yelp’s reviews that, if clicked on, led to Yelp’s site. Even though Yelp received more user traffic from those links as a result, Yelp complained, and Google removed Yelp snippets from its local results.

In its 2013 agreement with the FTC, Google guaranteed that Yelp could opt-out of having even snippets displayed in local search results by committing Google to:

make available a web-based notice form that provides website owners with the option to opt out from display on Google’s Covered Webpages of content from their website that has been crawled by Google. When a website owner exercises this option, Google will cease displaying crawled content from the domain name designated by the website owner….

The commitments also ensured that websites (like Yelp) that opt out would nevertheless remain in Google’s general index.

Ironically, Yelp now claims in a recent study that Google should show not only snippets of Yelp reviews, but even more of Yelp’s content. (For those interested, my colleagues and I have a paper explaining why the study’s claims are spurious).

The key bit here, of course, is that Google stopped pulling content from Yelp’s pages to use in its local search results, and that it implemented a simple mechanism for any other site wishing to opt out of the practice to do so.

It’s difficult to imagine why Missouri’s citizens might require more than this to redress alleged anticompetitive harms arising from the practice.

Perhaps AG Hawley thinks consumers would be better served by an opt-in mechanism? Of course, this is absurd, particularly if any of Missouri’s citizens — and their businesses — have websites. Most websites want at least some of their content to appear on Google’s search results pages as prominently as possible — see this and this, for example — and making this information more accessible to users is why Google exists.

To be sure, some websites may take issue with how much of their content Google features and where it places that content. But the easy opt out enables them to prevent Google from showing their content in a manner they disapprove of. Yelp is an outlier in this regard because it views Google as a direct competitor, especially to the extent it enables users to read some of Yelp’s reviews without visiting Yelp’s pages.

For Yelp and a few similarly situated companies the opt out suffices. But for almost everyone else the opt out is presumably rarely exercised, and any more-burdensome requirement would just impose unnecessary costs, harming instead of helping their websites.

The privacy issues

The Missouri investigation also applies to “Google’s collection, use, and disclosure of information about Google users and their online activities.” More pointedly, Hawley claims that “Google may be collecting more information from users than the company was telling consumers….”

Presumably this would come as news to the FTC, which, with a much larger staff and far greater expertise, currently has Google under a 20 year consent order (with some 15 years left to go) governing its privacy disclosures and information-sharing practices, thus ensuring that the agency engages in continual — and well-informed — oversight of precisely these issues.

The FTC’s consent order with Google (the result of an investigation into conduct involving Google’s short-lived Buzz social network, allegedly in violation of Google’s privacy policies), requires the company to:

  • “[N]ot misrepresent in any manner, expressly or by implication… the extent to which respondent maintains and protects the privacy and confidentiality of any [user] information…”;
  • “Obtain express affirmative consent from” users “prior to any new or additional sharing… of the Google user’s identified information with any third party” if doing so would in any way deviate from previously disclosed practices;
  • “[E]stablish and implement, and thereafter maintain, a comprehensive privacy program that is reasonably designed to [] address privacy risks related to the development and management of new and existing products and services for consumers, and (2) protect the privacy and confidentiality of [users’] information”; and
  • Along with a laundry list of other reporting requirements, “[submit] biennial assessments and reports [] from a qualified, objective, independent third-party professional…, approved by the [FTC] Associate Director for Enforcement, Bureau of Consumer Protection… in his or her sole discretion.”

What, beyond the incredibly broad scope of the FTC’s consent order, could the Missouri AG’s office possibly hope to obtain from an investigation?

Google is already expressly required to provide privacy reports to the FTC every two years. It must provide several of the items Hawley demands in his CID to the FTC; others are required to be made available to the FTC upon demand. What materials could the Missouri AG collect beyond those the FTC already receives, or has the authority to demand, under its consent order?

And what manpower and expertise could Hawley apply to those materials that would even begin to equal, let alone exceed, those of the FTC?

Lest anyone think the FTC is falling down on the job, a year after it issued that original consent order the Commission fined Google $22.5 million for violating the order in a questionable decision that was signed on to by all of the FTC’s Commissioners (both Republican and Democrat) — except the one who thought it didn’t go far enough.

That penalty is of undeniable import, not only for its amount (at the time it was the largest in FTC history) and for stemming from alleged problems completely unrelated to the issue underlying the initial action, but also because it was so easy to obtain. Having put Google under a 20-year consent order, the FTC need only prove (or threaten to prove) contempt of the consent order, rather than the specific elements of a new violation of the FTC Act, to bring the company to heel. The former is far easier to prove, and comes with the ability to impose (significant) damages.

So what’s really going on in Jefferson City?

While states are, of course, free to enforce their own consumer protection laws to protect their citizens, there is little to be gained — other than cold hard cash, perhaps — from pursuing cases that, at best, duplicate enforcement efforts already undertaken by the federal government (to say nothing of innumerable other jurisdictions).

To take just one relevant example, in 2013 — almost a year to the day following the court’s approval of the settlement in the FTC’s case alleging Google’s violation of the Buzz consent order — 37 states plus DC (not including Missouri) settled their own, follow-on litigation against Google on the same facts. Significantly, the terms of the settlement did not impose upon Google any obligation not already a part of the Buzz consent order or the subsequent FTC settlement — but it did require Google to fork over an additional $17 million.  

Not only is there little to be gained from yet another ill-conceived antitrust campaign, there is much to be lost. Such massive investigations require substantial resources to conduct, and the opportunity cost of doing so may mean real consumer issues go unaddressed. The Consumer Protection Section of the Missouri AG’s office says it receives some 100,000 consumer complaints a year. How many of those will have to be put on the back burner to accommodate an investigation like this one?

Even when not politically motivated, state enforcement of CPAs is not an unalloyed good. In fact, empirical studies of state consumer protection actions like the one contemplated by Mr. Hawley have shown that such actions tend toward overreach — good for lawyers, perhaps, but expensive for taxpayers and often detrimental to consumers. According to a recent study by economists James Cooper and Joanna Shepherd:

[I]n recent decades, this thoughtful balance [between protecting consumers and preventing the proliferation of lawsuits that harm both consumers and businesses] has yielded to damaging legislative and judicial overcorrections at the state level with a common theoretical mistake: the assumption that more CPA litigation automatically yields more consumer protection…. [C]ourts and legislatures gradually have abolished many of the procedural and remedial protections designed to cabin state CPAs to their original purpose: providing consumers with redress for actual harm in instances where tort and contract law may provide insufficient remedies. The result has been an explosion in consumer protection litigation, which serves no social function and for which consumers pay indirectly through higher prices and reduced innovation.

AG Hawley’s investigation seems almost tailored to duplicate the FTC’s extensive efforts — and to score political points. Or perhaps Mr. Hawley is just perturbed that Missouri missed out its share of the $17 million multistate settlement in 2013.

Which raises the spectre of a further problem with the Missouri case: “rent extraction.”

It’s no coincidence that Mr. Hawley’s investigation follows closely on the heels of Yelp’s recent letter to the FTC and every state AG (as well as four members of Congress and the EU’s chief competition enforcer, for good measure) alleging that Google had re-started scraping Yelp’s content, thus violating the terms of its voluntary commitments to the FTC.

It’s also no coincidence that Yelp “notified” Google of the problem only by lodging a complaint with every regulator who might listen rather than by actually notifying Google. But an action like the one Missouri is undertaking — not resolution of the issue — is almost certainly exactly what Yelp intended, and AG Hawley is playing right into Yelp’s hands.  

Google, for its part, strongly disputes Yelp’s allegation, and, indeed, has — even according to Yelp — complied fully with Yelp’s request to keep its content off Google Local and other “vertical” search pages since 18 months before Google entered into its commitments with the FTC. Google claims that the recent scraping was inadvertent, and that it would happily have rectified the problem if only Yelp had actually bothered to inform Google.

Indeed, Yelp’s allegations don’t really pass the smell test: That Google would suddenly change its practices now, in violation of its commitments to the FTC and at a time of extraordinarily heightened scrutiny by the media, politicians of all stripes, competitors like Yelp, the FTC, the EU, and a host of other antitrust or consumer protection authorities, strains belief.

But, again, identifying and resolving an actual commercial dispute was likely never the goal. As a recent, fawning New York Times article on “Yelp’s Six-Year Grudge Against Google” highlights (focusing in particular on Luther Lowe, now Yelp’s VP of Public Policy and the author of the letter):

Yelp elevated Mr. Lowe to the new position of director of government affairs, a job that more or less entails flying around the world trying to sic antitrust regulators on Google. Over the next few years, Yelp hired its first lobbyist and started a political action committee. Recently, it has started filing complaints in Brazil.

Missouri, in other words, may just be carrying Yelp’s water.

The one clear lesson of the decades-long Microsoft antitrust saga is that companies that struggle to compete in the market can profitably tax their rivals by instigating antitrust actions against them. As Milton Friedman admonished, decrying “the business community’s suicidal impulse” to invite regulation:

As a believer in the pursuit of self-interest in a competitive capitalist system, I can’t blame a businessman who goes to Washington [or is it Jefferson City?] and tries to get special privileges for his company.… Blame the rest of us for being so foolish as to let him get away with it.

Taking a tough line on Silicon Valley firms in the midst of today’s anti-tech-company populist resurgence may help with the electioneering in Mr. Hawley’s upcoming bid for a US Senate seat and serve Yelp, but it doesn’t offer any clear, actual benefits to Missourians. As I’ve wondered before: “Exactly when will regulators be a little more skeptical of competitors trying to game the antitrust laws for their own advantage?”

Last week the editorial board of the Washington Post penned an excellent editorial responding to the European Commission’s announcement of its decision in its Google Shopping investigation. Here’s the key language from the editorial:

Whether the demise of any of [the complaining comparison shopping sites] is specifically traceable to Google, however, is not so clear. Also unclear is the aggregate harm from Google’s practices to consumers, as opposed to the unlucky companies. Birkenstock-seekers may well prefer to see a Google-generated list of vendors first, instead of clicking around to other sites…. Those who aren’t happy anyway have other options. Indeed, the rise of comparison shopping on giants such as Amazon and eBay makes concerns that Google might exercise untrammeled power over e-commerce seem, well, a bit dated…. Who knows? In a few years we might be talking about how Facebook leveraged its 2 billion users to disrupt the whole space.

That’s actually a pretty thorough, if succinct, summary of the basic problems with the Commission’s case (based on its PR and Factsheet, at least; it hasn’t released the full decision yet).

I’ll have more to say on the decision in due course, but for now I want to elaborate on two of the points raised by the WaPo editorial board, both in service of its crucial rejoinder to the Commission that “Also unclear is the aggregate harm from Google’s practices to consumers, as opposed to the unlucky companies.”

First, the WaPo editorial board points out that:

Birkenstock-seekers may well prefer to see a Google-generated list of vendors first, instead of clicking around to other sites.

It is undoubtedly true that users “may well prefer to see a Google-generated list of vendors first.” It’s also crucial to understanding the changes in Google’s search results page that have given rise to the current raft of complaints.

As I noted in a Wall Street Journal op-ed two years ago:

It’s a mistake to consider “general search” and “comparison shopping” or “product search” to be distinct markets.

From the moment it was technologically feasible to do so, Google has been adapting its traditional search results—that familiar but long since vanished page of 10 blue links—to offer more specialized answers to users’ queries. Product search, which is what is at issue in the EU complaint, is the next iteration in this trend.

Internet users today seek information from myriad sources: Informational sites (Wikipedia and the Internet Movie Database); review sites (Yelp and TripAdvisor); retail sites (Amazon and eBay); and social-media sites (Facebook and Twitter). What do these sites have in common? They prioritize certain types of data over others to improve the relevance of the information they provide.

“Prioritization” of Google’s own shopping results, however, is the core problem for the Commission:

Google has systematically given prominent placement to its own comparison shopping service: when a consumer enters a query into the Google search engine in relation to which Google’s comparison shopping service wants to show results, these are displayed at or near the top of the search results. (Emphasis in original).

But this sort of prioritization is the norm for all search, social media, e-commerce and similar platforms. And this shouldn’t be a surprise: The value of these platforms to the user is dependent upon their ability to sort the wheat from the chaff of the now immense amount of information coursing about the Web.

As my colleagues and I noted in a paper responding to a methodologically questionable report by Tim Wu and Yelp leveling analogous “search bias” charges in the context of local search results:

Google is a vertically integrated company that offers general search, but also a host of other products…. With its well-developed algorithm and wide range of products, it is hardly surprising that Google can provide not only direct answers to factual questions, but also a wide range of its own products and services that meet users’ needs. If consumers choose Google not randomly, but precisely because they seek to take advantage of the direct answers and other options that Google can provide, then removing the sort of “bias” alleged by [complainants] would affirmatively hurt, not help, these users. (Emphasis added).

And as Josh Wright noted in an earlier paper responding to yet another set of such “search bias” charges (in that case leveled in a similarly methodologically questionable report by Benjamin Edelman and Benjamin Lockwood):

[I]t is critical to recognize that bias alone is not evidence of competitive harm and it must be evaluated in the appropriate antitrust economic context of competition and consumers, rather individual competitors and websites. Edelman & Lockwood´s analysis provides a useful starting point for describing how search engines differ in their referrals to their own content. However, it is not useful from an antitrust policy perspective because it erroneously—and contrary to economic theory and evidence—presumes natural and procompetitive product differentiation in search rankings to be inherently harmful. (Emphasis added).

We’ll have to see what kind of analysis the Commission relies upon in its decision to reach its conclusion that prioritization is an antitrust problem, but there is reason to be skeptical that it will turn out to be compelling. The Commission states in its PR that:

The evidence shows that consumers click far more often on results that are more visible, i.e. the results appearing higher up in Google’s search results. Even on a desktop, the ten highest-ranking generic search results on page 1 together generally receive approximately 95% of all clicks on generic search results (with the top result receiving about 35% of all the clicks). The first result on page 2 of Google’s generic search results receives only about 1% of all clicks. This cannot just be explained by the fact that the first result is more relevant, because evidence also shows that moving the first result to the third rank leads to a reduction in the number of clicks by about 50%. The effects on mobile devices are even more pronounced given the much smaller screen size.

This means that by giving prominent placement only to its own comparison shopping service and by demoting competitors, Google has given its own comparison shopping service a significant advantage compared to rivals. (Emphasis added).

Whatever truth there is in the characterization that placement is more important than relevance in influencing user behavior, the evidence cited by the Commission to demonstrate that doesn’t seem applicable to what’s happening on Google’s search results page now.

Most crucially, the evidence offered by the Commission refers only to how placement affects clicks on “generic search results” and glosses over the fact that the “prominent placement” of Google’s “results” is not only a difference in position but also in the type of result offered.

Google Shopping results (like many of its other “vertical results” and direct answers) are very different than the 10 blue links of old. These “universal search” results are, for one thing, actual answers rather than merely links to other sites. They are also more visually rich and attractively and clearly displayed.

Ironically, Tim Wu and Yelp use the claim that users click less often on Google’s universal search results to support their contention that increased relevance doesn’t explain Google’s prioritization of its own content. Yet, as we note in our response to their study:

[I]f a consumer is using a search engine in order to find a direct answer to a query rather than a link to another site to answer it, click-through would actually represent a decrease in consumer welfare, not an increase.

In fact, the study fails to incorporate this dynamic even though it is precisely what the authors claim the study is measuring.

Further, as the WaPo editorial intimates, these universal search results (including Google Shopping results) are quite plausibly more valuable to users. As even Tim Wu and Yelp note:

No one truly disagrees that universal search, in concept, can be an important innovation that can serve consumers.

Google sees it exactly this way, of course. Here’s Tim Wu and Yelp again:

According to Google, a principal difference between the earlier cases and its current conduct is that universal search represents a pro-competitive, user-serving innovation. By deploying universal search, Google argues, it has made search better. As Eric Schmidt argues, “if we know the answer it is better for us to answer that question so [the user] doesn’t have to click anywhere, and in that sense we… use data sources that are our own because we can’t engineer it any other way.”

Of course, in this case, one would expect fewer clicks to correlate with higher value to users — precisely the opposite of the claim made by Tim Wu and Yelp, which is the surest sign that their study is faulty.

But the Commission, at least according to the evidence cited in its PR, doesn’t even seem to measure the relative value of the very different presentations of information at all, instead resting on assertions rooted in the irrelevant difference in user propensity to click on generic (10 blue links) search results depending on placement.

Add to this Pinar Akman’s important point that Google Shopping “results” aren’t necessarily search results at all, but paid advertising:

[O]nce one appreciates the fact that Google’s shopping results are simply ads for products and Google treats all ads with the same ad-relevant algorithm and all organic results with the same organic-relevant algorithm, the Commission’s order becomes impossible to comprehend. Is the Commission imposing on Google a duty to treat non-sponsored results in the same way that it treats sponsored results? If so, does this not provide an unfair advantage to comparison shopping sites over, for example, Google’s advertising partners as well as over Amazon, eBay, various retailers, etc…?

Randy Picker also picks up on this point:

But those Google shopping boxes are ads, Picker told me. “I can’t imagine what they’re thinking,” he said. “Google is in the advertising business. That’s how it makes its money. It has no obligation to put other people’s ads on its website.”

The bottom line here is that the WaPo editorial board does a better job characterizing the actual, relevant market dynamics in a single sentence than the Commission seems to have done in its lengthy releases summarizing its decision following seven full years of investigation.

The second point made by the WaPo editorial board to which I want to draw attention is equally important:

Those who aren’t happy anyway have other options. Indeed, the rise of comparison shopping on giants such as Amazon and eBay makes concerns that Google might exercise untrammeled power over e-commerce seem, well, a bit dated…. Who knows? In a few years we might be talking about how Facebook leveraged its 2 billion users to disrupt the whole space.

The Commission dismisses this argument in its Factsheet:

The Commission Decision concerns the effect of Google’s practices on comparison shopping markets. These offer a different service to merchant platforms, such as Amazon and eBay. Comparison shopping services offer a tool for consumers to compare products and prices online and find deals from online retailers of all types. By contrast, they do not offer the possibility for products to be bought on their site, which is precisely the aim of merchant platforms. Google’s own commercial behaviour reflects these differences – merchant platforms are eligible to appear in Google Shopping whereas rival comparison shopping services are not.

But the reality is that “comparison shopping,” just like “general search,” is just one technology among many for serving information and ads to consumers online. Defining the relevant market or limiting the definition of competition in terms of the particular mechanism that Google (or Foundem, or Amazon, or Facebook…) happens to use doesn’t reflect the extent of substitutability between these different mechanisms.

Properly defined, the market in which Google competes online is not search, but something more like online “matchmaking” between advertisers, retailers and consumers. And this market is enormously competitive. The same goes for comparison shopping.

And the fact that Amazon and eBay “offer the possibility for products to be bought on their site” doesn’t take away from the fact that they also “offer a tool for consumers to compare products and prices online and find deals from online retailers of all types.” Not only do these sites contain enormous amounts of valuable (and well-presented) information about products, including product comparisons and consumer reviews, but they also actually offer comparisons among retailers. In fact, Fifty percent of the items sold through Amazon’s platform, for example, are sold by third-party retailers — the same sort of retailers that might also show up on a comparison shopping site.

More importantly, though, as the WaPo editorial rightly notes, “[t]hose who aren’t happy anyway have other options.” Google just isn’t the indispensable gateway to the Internet (and definitely not to shopping on the Internet) that the Commission seems to think.

Today over half of product searches in the US start on Amazon. The majority of web page referrals come from Facebook. Yelp’s most engaged users now access it via its app (which has seen more than 3x growth in the past five years). And a staggering 40 percent of mobile browsing on both Android and iOS now takes place inside the Facebook app.

Then there are “closed” platforms like the iTunes store and innumerable other apps that handle copious search traffic (including shopping-related traffic) but also don’t figure in the Commission’s analysis, apparently.

In fact, billions of users reach millions of companies every day through direct browser navigation, social media, apps, email links, review sites, blogs, and countless other means — all without once touching Google.com. So-called “dark social” interactions (email, text messages, and IMs) drive huge amounts of some of the most valuable traffic on the Internet, in fact.

All of this, in turn, has led to a competitive scramble to roll out completely new technologies to meet consumers’ informational (and merchants’ advertising) needs. The already-arriving swarm of VR, chatbots, digital assistants, smart-home devices, and more will offer even more interfaces besides Google through which consumers can reach their favorite online destinations.

The point is this: Google’s competitors complaining that the world is evolving around them don’t need to rely on Google. That they may choose to do so does not saddle Google with an obligation to ensure that they can always do so.

Antitrust laws — in Europe, no less than in the US — don’t require Google or any other firm to make life easier for competitors. That’s especially true when doing so would come at the cost of consumer-welfare-enhancing innovations. The Commission doesn’t seem to have grasped this fundamental point, however.

The WaPo editorial board gets it, though:

The immense size and power of all Internet giants are a legitimate focus for the antitrust authorities on both sides of the Atlantic. Brussels vs. Google, however, seems to be a case of punishment without crime.

Regardless of the merits and soundness (or lack thereof) of this week’s European Commission Decision in the Google Shopping case — one cannot assess this until we have the text of the decision — two comments really struck me during the press conference.

First, it was said that Google’s conduct had essentially reduced innovation. If I heard correctly, this is a formidable statement. In 2016, another official EU service published stats that described Alphabet as increasing its R&D by 22% and ranked it as the world’s 4th top R&D investor. Sure it can always be better. And sure this does not excuse everything. But still. The press conference language on incentives to innovate was a bit of an oversell, to say the least.

Second, the Commission views this decision as a “precedent” or as a “framework” that will inform the way dominant Internet platforms should display, intermediate and market their services and those of their competitors. This may fuel additional complaints by other vertical search rivals against (i) Google in relation to other product lines, but also against (ii) other large platform players.

Beyond this, the Commission’s approach raises a gazillion questions of law and economics. Pending the disclosure of the economic evidence in the published decision, let me share some thoughts on a few (arbitrarily) selected legal issues.

First, the Commission has drawn the lesson of the Microsoft remedy quagmire. The Commission refrains from using a trustee to ensure compliance with the decision. This had been a bone of contention in the 2007 Microsoft appeal. Readers will recall that the Commission had imposed on Microsoft to appoint a monitoring trustee, who was supposed to advise on possible infringements in the implementation of the decision. On appeal, the Court eventually held that the Commission was solely responsible for this, and could not delegate those powers. Sure, the Commission could “retai[n] its own external expert to provide advice when it investigates the implementation of the remedies.” But no more than that.

Second, we learn that the Commission is no longer in the business of software design. Recall the failed untying of WMP and Windows — Windows Naked sold only 11,787 copies, likely bought by tech bootleggers willing to acquire the first piece of software ever designed by antitrust officials — or the browser “Choice Screen” compliance saga which eventually culminated with a €561 million fine. Nothing of this can be found here. The Commission leaves remedial design to the abstract concept of “equal treatment”.[1] This, certainly, is a (relatively) commendable approach, and one that could inspire remedies in other unilateral conduct cases, in particular, exploitative conduct ones where pricing remedies are both costly, impractical, and consequentially inefficient.

On the other hand, readers will also not fail to see the corollary implication of “equal treatment”: search neutrality could actually cut both ways, and lead to a lawful degradation in consumer welfare if Google were ever to decide to abandon rich format displays for both its own shopping services and those of rivals.

Third, neither big data nor algorithmic design is directly vilified in the case (“The Commission Decision does not object to the design of Google’s generic search algorithms or to demotions as such, nor to the way that Google displays or organises its search results pages”). In fact, the Commission objects to the selective application of Google’s generic search algorithms to its own products. This is an interesting, and subtle, clarification given all the coverage that this topic has attracted in recent antitrust literature. We are in fact very close to a run of the mill claim of disguised market manipulation, not causally related to data or algorithmic technology.

Fourth, Google said it contemplated a possible appeal of the decision. Now, here’s a challenging question: can an antitrust defendant effectively exercise its right to judicial review of an administrative agency (and more generally its rights of defense), when it operates under the threat of antitrust sanctions in ongoing parallel cases investigated by the same agency (i.e., the antitrust inquiries related to Android and Ads)? This question cuts further than the Google Shopping case. Say firm A contemplates a merger with firm B in market X, while it is at the same time subject to antitrust investigations in market Z. And assume that X and Z are neither substitutes nor complements so there is little competitive relationship between both products. Can the Commission leverage ongoing antitrust investigations in market Z to extract merger concessions in market X? Perhaps more to the point, can the firm interact with the Commission as if the investigations are completely distinct, or does it have to play a more nuanced game and consider the ramifications of its interactions with the Commission in both markets?

Fifth, as to the odds of a possible appeal, I don’t believe that arguments on the economic evidence or legal theory of liability will ever be successful before the General Court of the EU. The law and doctrine in unilateral conduct cases are disturbingly — and almost irrationally — severe. As I have noted elsewhere, the bottom line in the EU case-law on unilateral conduct is to consider the genuine requirement of “harm to competition” as a rhetorical question, not an empirical one. In EU unilateral conduct law, exclusion of every and any firm is a per se concern, regardless of evidence of efficiency, entry or rivalry.

In turn, I tend to opine that Google has a stronger game from a procedural standpoint, having been left with (i) the expectation of a settlement (it played ball three times by making proposals); (ii) a corollary expectation of the absence of a fine (settlement discussions are not appropriate for cases that could end with fines); and (iii) a full seven long years of an investigatory cloud. We know from the past that EU judges like procedural issues, but like comparably less to debate the substance of the law in unilateral conduct cases. This case could thus be a test case in terms of setting boundaries on how freely the Commission can U-turn a case (the Commissioner said “take the case forward in a different way”).

Today I published an article in The Daily Signal bemoaning the European Commission’s June 27 decision to fine Google $2.7 billion for engaging in procompetitive, consumer welfare-enhancing conduct.  The article is reproduced below (internal hyperlinks omitted), in italics:

On June 27, the European Commission—Europe’s antitrust enforcer—fined Google over $2.7 billion for a supposed violation of European antitrust law that bestowed benefits, not harm, on consumers.

And that’s just for starters. The commission is vigorously pursuing other antitrust investigations of Google that could lead to the imposition of billions of dollars in additional fines by European bureaucrats.

The legal outlook for Google is cloudy at best. Although the commission’s decisions can be appealed to European courts, European Commission bureaucrats have a generally good track record in winning before those tribunals.

But the problem is even bigger than that.

Recently, questionable antitrust probes have grown like topsy around the world, many of them aimed at America’s most creative high-tech firms. Beneficial innovations have become legal nightmares—good for defense lawyers, but bad for free market competition and the health of the American economy.

What great crime did Google commit to merit the huge European Commission fine?

The commission claims that Google favored its own comparison shopping service over others in displaying Google search results.

Never mind that consumers apparently like the shopping-related service links they find on Google (after all, they keep using its search engine in droves), or can patronize any other search engine or specialized comparison shopping service that can be found with a few clicks of the mouse.

This is akin to saying that Kroger or Walmart harm competition when they give favorable shelf space displays to their house brands. That’s ridiculous.

Somehow, such “favoritism” does not prevent consumers from flocking to those successful chains, or patronizing their competitors if they so choose. It is the essence of vigorous free market rivalry.  

The commission’s theory of anticompetitive behavior doesn’t hold water, as I explained in an earlier article. The Federal Trade Commission investigated Google’s search engine practices several years ago and found no evidence that alleged Google search engine display bias harmed consumers.

To the contrary, as former FTC Commissioner (and leading antitrust expert) Josh Wright has pointed out, and as the FTC found:

Google likely benefited consumers by prominently displaying its vertical content on its search results page. The Commission reached this conclusion based upon, among other things, analyses of actual consumer behavior—so-called ‘click through’ data—which showed how consumers reacted to Google’s promotion of its vertical properties.

In short, Google’s search policies benefit consumers. Antitrust is properly concerned with challenging business practices that harm consumer welfare and the overall competitive process, not with propping up particular competitors.

Absent a showing of actual harm to consumers, government antitrust cops—whether in Europe, the U.S., or elsewhere—should butt out.

Unfortunately, the European Commission shows no sign of heeding this commonsense advice. The Europeans have also charged Google with antitrust violations—with multibillion-dollar fines in the offing—based on the company’s promotion of its Android mobile operating service and its AdSense advertising service.

(That’s not all—other European Commission Google inquiries are also pending.)

As in the shopping services case, these investigations appear to be woefully short on evidence of harm to competition and consumer welfare.

The bigger question raised by the Google matters is the ability of any highly successful individual competitor to efficiently promote and favor its own offerings—something that has long been understood by American enforcers to be part and parcel of free-market competition.

As law Professor Michael Carrier points outs, any changes the EU forces on Google’s business model “could eventually apply to any way that Amazon, Facebook or anyone else offers to search for products or services.”

This is troublesome. Successful American information-age companies have already run afoul of the commission’s regulatory cops.

Microsoft and Intel absorbed multibillion-dollar European Commission antitrust fines in recent years, based on other theories of competitive harm. Amazon, Facebook, and Apple, among others, have faced European probes of their competitive practices and “privacy policies”—the terms under which they use or share sensitive information from consumers.

Often, these probes have been supported by less successful rivals who would rather rely on government intervention than competition on the merits.

Of course, being large and innovative is not a legal shield. Market-leading companies merit being investigated for actions that are truly harmful. The law applies equally to everyone.

But antitrust probes of efficient practices that confer great benefits on consumers (think how much the Google search engine makes it easier and cheaper to buy desired products and services and obtain useful information), based merely on the theory that some rivals may lose business, do not advance the free market. They retard it.

Who loses when zealous bureaucrats target efficient business practices by large, highly successful firms, as in the case of the European Commission’s Google probes and related investigations? The general public.

“Platform firms” like Google and Amazon that bring together consumers and other businesses will invest less in improving their search engines and other consumer-friendly features, for fear of being accused of undermining less successful competitors.

As a result, the supply of beneficial innovations will slow, and consumers will be less well off.

What’s more, competition will weaken, as the incentive to innovate to compete effectively with market leaders will be reduced. Regulation and government favor will substitute for welfare-enhancing improvement in goods, services, and platform quality. Economic vitality will inevitably be reduced, to the public’s detriment.

Europe is not the only place where American market leaders face unwarranted antitrust challenges.

For example, Qualcomm and InterDigital, U.S. firms that are leaders in smartphone communications technologies that power mobile interconnections, have faced large antitrust fines for, in essence, “charging too much” for licenses to their patented technologies.

South Korea also claimed to impose a “global remedy” that imposed its artificially low royalty rates on all of Qualcomm’s licensing agreements around the world.

(All this is part and parcel of foreign government attacks on American intellectual property—patents, copyrights, trademarks, and trade secrets—that cost U.S. innovators hundreds of billions of dollars a year.)

 

A lack of basic procedural fairness in certain foreign antitrust proceedings has also bedeviled American companies, preventing them from being able to defend their conduct. Foreign antitrust has sometimes been perverted into a form of “industrial policy” that discriminates against American companies in favor of domestic businesses.

What can be done to confront these problems?

In 2016, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce convened a group of trade and antitrust experts to examine the problem. In March 2017, the chamber released a report by the experts describing the nature of the problem and making specific recommendations for U.S. government action to deal with it.

Specifically, the experts urged that a White House-led interagency task force be set up to develop a strategy for dealing with unwarranted antitrust attacks on American businesses—including both misapplication of legal rules and violations of due process.

The report also called for the U.S. government to work through existing international institutions and trade negotiations to promote a convergence toward sounder antitrust practices worldwide.

The Trump administration should take heed of the experts’ report and act decisively to combat harmful foreign antitrust distortions. Antitrust policy worldwide should focus on helping the competitive process work more efficiently, not on distorting it by shacking successful innovators.

One more point, not mentioned in the article, merits being stressed.  Although the United States Government cannot control a foreign sovereign’s application of its competition law, it can engage in rhetoric and public advocacy aimed at convincing that sovereign to apply its law in a manner that promotes consumer welfare, competition on the merits, and economic efficiency.  Regrettably, the Obama Administration, particularly in the latter part of its second term, did a miserable job in promoting a facts-based, empirical approach to antitrust enforcement, centered on hard facts, not on mere speculative theories of harm.  In particular, certain political appointees lent lip service or silent acquiescence to inappropriate antitrust attacks on the unilateral exercise of intellectual property rights.  In addition, those senior officials made statements that could have been interpreted as supportive of populist “big is bad” conceptions of antitrust that had been discredited decades ago – through sound scholarship, by U.S. enforcement policies, and in judicial decisions.  The Trump Administration will have an opportunity to correct those errors, and to restore U.S. policy leadership in support of sound, pro-free market antitrust principles.  Let us hope that it does so, and soon.

In a recent article for the San Francisco Daily Journal I examine Google v. Equustek: a case currently before the Canadian Supreme Court involving the scope of jurisdiction of Canadian courts to enjoin conduct on the internet.

In the piece I argue that

a globally interconnected system of free enterprise must operationalize the rule of law through continuous evolution, as technology, culture and the law itself evolve. And while voluntary actions are welcome, conflicts between competing, fundamental interests persist. It is at these edges that the over-simplifications and pseudo-populism of the SOPA/PIPA uprising are particularly counterproductive.

The article highlights the problems associated with a school of internet exceptionalism that would treat the internet as largely outside the reach of laws and regulations — not by affirmative legislative decision, but by virtue of jurisdictional default:

The direct implication of the “internet exceptionalist’ position is that governments lack the ability to impose orders that protect its citizens against illegal conduct when such conduct takes place via the internet. But simply because the internet might be everywhere and nowhere doesn’t mean that it isn’t still susceptible to the application of national laws. Governments neither will nor should accept the notion that their authority is limited to conduct of the last century. The Internet isn’t that exceptional.

Read the whole thing!

Today ICLE released a white paper entitled, A critical assessment of the latest charge of Google’s anticompetitive bias from Yelp and Tim Wu.

The paper is a comprehensive response to a study by Michael Luca, Timothy Wu, Sebastian Couvidat, Daniel Frank, & William Seltzer, entitled, Is Google degrading search? Consumer harm from Universal Search.

The Wu, et al. paper will be one of the main topics of discussion at today’s Capitol Forum and George Washington Institute of Public Policy event on Dominant Platforms Under the Microscope: Policy Approaches in the US and EU, at which I will be speaking — along with a host of luminaries including, inter alia, Josh Wright, Jonathan Kanter, Allen Grunes, Catherine Tucker, and Michael Luca — one of the authors of the Universal Search study.

Follow the link above to register — the event starts at noon today at the National Press Club.

Meanwhile, here’s a brief description of our paper:

Late last year, Tim Wu of Columbia Law School (and now the White House Office of Management and Budget), Michael Luca of Harvard Business School (and a consultant for Yelp), and a group of Yelp data scientists released a study claiming that Google has been purposefully degrading search results from its more-specialized competitors in the area of local search. The authors’ claim is that Google is leveraging its dominant position in general search to thwart competition from specialized search engines by favoring its own, less-popular, less-relevant results over those of its competitors:

To improve the popularity of its specialized search features, Google has used the power of its dominant general search engine. The primary means for doing so is what is called the “universal search” or the “OneBox.”

This is not a new claim, and researchers have been attempting (and failing) to prove Google’s “bias” for some time. Likewise, these critics have drawn consistent policy conclusions from their claims, asserting that antitrust violations lie at the heart of the perceived bias. But the studies are systematically marred by questionable methodology and bad economics.

This latest study by Tim Wu, along with a cadre of researchers employed by Yelp (one of Google’s competitors and one of its chief antitrust provocateurs), fares no better, employing slightly different but equally questionable methodology, bad economics, and a smattering of new, but weak, social science. (For a thorough criticism of the inherent weaknesses of Wu et al.’s basic social science methodology, see Miguel de la Mano, Stephen Lewis, and Andrew Leyden, Focus on the Evidence: A Brief Rebuttal of Wu, Luca, et al (2016), available here).

The basic thesis of the study is that Google purposefully degrades its local searches (e.g., for restaurants, hotels, services, etc.) to the detriment of its specialized search competitors, local businesses, consumers, and even Google’s bottom line — and that this is an actionable antitrust violation.

But in fact the study shows nothing of the kind. Instead, the study is marred by methodological problems that, in the first instance, make it impossible to draw any reliable conclusions. Nor does the study show that Google’s conduct creates any antitrust-relevant problems. Rather, the construction of the study and the analysis of its results reflect a superficial and inherently biased conception of consumer welfare that completely undermines the study’s purported legal and economic conclusions.

Read the whole thing here.

Since the European Commission (EC) announced its first inquiry into Google’s business practices in 2010, the company has been the subject of lengthy investigations by courts and competition agencies around the globe. Regulatory authorities in the United States, France, the United Kingdom, Canada, Brazil, and South Korea have all opened and rejected similar antitrust claims.

And yet the EC marches on, bolstered by Google’s myriad competitors, who continue to agitate for further investigations and enforcement actions, even as we — companies and consumers alike — enjoy the benefits of an increasingly dynamic online marketplace.

Indeed, while the EC has spent more than half a decade casting about for some plausible antitrust claim, the online economy has thundered ahead. Since 2010, Facebook has tripled its active users and multiplied its revenue ninefold; the number of apps available in the Amazon app store has grown from less than 4000 to over 400,000 today; and there are almost 1.5 billion more Internet users globally than there were in 2010. And consumers are increasingly using new and different ways to search for information: Amazon’s Alexa, Apple’s Siri, Microsoft’s Cortana, and Facebook’s Messenger are a few of the many new innovations challenging traditional search engines.

Advertisers have adapted to this evolution, moving increasingly online, and from search to display ads as mobile adoption has skyrocketedSocial networks like Twitter and Snapchat have come into their own, competing for the same (and ever-increasing) advertising dollars. For marketers, advertising on social networks is now just as important as advertising in search. No wonder e-commerce sales have more than doubled, to almost $2 trillion worldwide; for the first time, consumers purchased more online than in stores this past year.

To paraphrase Louis C.K.: Everything is amazing — and no one at the European Commission is happy.

The EC’s market definition is fatally flawed

Like its previous claims, the Commission’s most recent charges are rooted in the assertion that Google abuses its alleged dominance in “general search” advertising to unfairly benefit itself and to monopolize other markets. But European regulators continue to miss the critical paradigm shift among online advertisers and consumers that has upended this stale view of competition on the Internet. The reality is that Google’s competition may not, and need not, look exactly like Google itself, but it is competition nonetheless. And it’s happening in spades.

The key to understanding why the European Commission’s case is fundamentally flawed lies in an examination of how it defines the relevant market. Through a series of economically and factually unjustified assumptions, the Commission defines search as a distinct market in which Google faces limited competition and enjoys an 80% market share. In other words, for the EC, “general search” apparently means only nominal search providers like Google and Bing; it doesn’t mean companies like Amazon, Facebook and Twitter — Google’s biggest competitors.  

But the reality is that “general search” is just one technology among many for serving information and ads to consumers online. Defining the relevant market or limiting the definition of competition in terms of the particular mechanism that Google happens to use to match consumers and advertisers doesn’t reflect the substitutability of other mechanisms that do the same thing — merely because these mechanisms aren’t called “search.”

Properly defined, the market in which Google competes online is not search, but something more like online “matchmaking” between advertisers, retailers and consumers. And this market is enormously competitive.

Consumers today are increasingly using platforms like Amazon and Facebook as substitutes for the searches they might have run on Google or Bing. “Closed” platforms like the iTunes store and innumerable apps handle copious search traffic but also don’t figure in the EC’s market calculations. And so-called “dark social” interactions like email, text messages, and IMs, drive huge amounts of some of the most valuable traffic on the Internet. This, in turn, has led to a competitive scramble to roll out completely new technologies like chatbots to meet consumers’ informational (and merchants’ advertising) needs.

Properly construed, Google’s market position is precarious

Like Facebook and Twitter (and practically every other Internet platform), advertising is Google’s primary source of revenue. Instead of charging for fancy hardware or offering services to users for a fee, Google offers search, the Android operating system, and a near-endless array of other valuable services for free to users. The company’s very existence relies on attracting Internet users and consumers to its properties in order to effectively connect them with advertisers.

But being an online matchmaker is a difficult and competitive enterprise. Among other things, the ability to generate revenue turns crucially on the quality of the match: All else equal, an advertiser interested in selling widgets will pay more for an ad viewed by a user who can be reliably identified as being interested in buying widgets.

Google’s primary mechanism for attracting users to match with advertisers — general search — is substantially about information, not commerce, and the distinction between product and informational searches is crucially important to understanding Google’s market and the surprisingly limited and tenuous market power it possesses.

General informational queries aren’t nearly as valuable to advertisers: Significantly, only about 30 percent of Google’s searches even trigger any advertising at all. Meanwhile, as of 2012, one-third of product searches started on Amazon while only 13% started on a general search engine.

As economist Hal Singer aptly noted in 2012,

[the data] suggest that Google lacks market power in a critical segment of search — namely, product searches. Even though searches for items such as power tools or designer jeans account for only 10 to 20 percent of all searches, they are clearly some of the most important queries for search engines from a business perspective, as they are far easier to monetize than informational queries like “Kate Middleton.”

While Google Search clearly offers substantial value to advertisers, its ability to continue to do so is precarious when confronted with the diverse array of competitors that, like Facebook, offer a level of granularity in audience targeting that general search can’t match, or that, like Amazon, systematically offer up the most valuable searchers.

In order to compete in this market — one properly defined to include actual competitors — Google has had to constantly innovate to maintain its position. Unlike a complacent monopolist, it has evolved to meet changing consumer demand, shifting technology and inventive competitors. Thus, Google’s search algorithm has changed substantially over the years to make more effective use of the information available to ensure relevance; search results have evolved to give consumers answers to queries rather than just links, and to provide more-direct access to products and services; and, as users have shifted more and more of their time and attention to mobile devices, search has incorporated more-localized results.

Competitors want a free lunch

Critics complain, nevertheless, that these developments have made it harder, in one way or another, for rivals to compete. And the EC has provided a willing ear. According to Commissioner Vestager last week:

Google has come up with many innovative products that have made a difference to our lives. But that doesn’t give Google the right to deny other companies the chance to compete and innovate. Today, we have further strengthened our case that Google has unduly favoured its own comparison shopping service in its general search result pages…. (Emphasis added).

Implicit in this statement is the remarkable assertion that by favoring its own comparison shopping services, Google “den[ies] other companies the chance to compete and innovate.” Even assuming Google does “favor” its own results, this is an astounding claim.

First, it is not a violation of competition law simply to treat competitors’ offerings differently than one’s own, even for a dominant firm. Instead, conduct must actually exclude competitors from the market, without offering countervailing advantages to consumers. But Google’s conduct is not exclusionary, and there are many benefits to consumers.

As it has from the start of its investigations of Google, the EC begins with a flawed assumption: that Google’s competitors both require, and may be entitled to, unfettered access to Google’s property in order to compete. But this is patently absurd. Google is not an essential facility: Billions of users reach millions of companies everyday through direct browser navigation, apps, email links, review sites and blogs, and countless other means — all without once touching Google.com.

Google Search results do not exclude competitors, whether comparison shopping sites or others. For example, 72% of TripAdvisor’s U.S. traffic comes from search, and almost all of that from organic results; other specialized search sites see similar traffic volumes.

More important, however, in addition to continuing to reach rival sites through Google Search, billions of consumers access rival services directly through their mobile apps. In fact, for Yelp,

Approximately 21 million unique devices accessed Yelp via the mobile app on a monthly average basis in the first quarter of 2016, an increase of 32% compared to the same period in 2015. App users viewed approximately 70% of page views in the first quarter and were more than 10 times as engaged as website users, as measured by number of pages viewed. (Emphasis added).

And a staggering 40 percent of mobile browsing is now happening inside the Facebook app, competing with the browsers and search engines pre-loaded on smartphones.

Millions of consumers also directly navigate to Google’s rivals via their browser by simply typing, for example, “Yelp.com” in their address bar. And as noted above, consumers are increasingly using Google rivals’ new disruptive information engines like Alexa and Siri for their search needs. Even the traditional search engine space is competitive — in fact, according to Wired, as of July 2016:

Microsoft has now captured more than one-third of Internet searches. Microsoft’s transformation from a company that sells boxed software to one that sells services in the cloud is well underway. (Emphasis added).

With such numbers, it’s difficult to see how rivals are being foreclosed from reaching consumers in any meaningful way.

Meanwhile, the benefits to consumers are obvious: Google is directly answering questions for consumers rather than giving them a set of possible links to click through and further search. In some cases its results present entirely new and valuable forms of information (e.g., search trends and structured data); in others they serve to hone searches by suggesting further queries, or to help users determine which organic results (including those of its competitors) may be most useful. And, of course, consumers aren’t forced to endure these innovations if they don’t find them useful, as they can quickly switch to other providers.  

Nostalgia makes for bad regulatory policy

Google is not the unstoppable monopolist of the EU competition regulators’ imagining. Rather, it is a continual innovator, forced to adapt to shifting consumer demand, changing technology, and competitive industry dynamics. And, instead of trying to hamstring Google, if they are to survive, Google’s competitors (and complainants) must innovate as well.

Dominance in technology markets — especially online — has always been ephemeral. Once upon a time, MySpace, AOL, and Yahoo were the dominant Internet platforms. Kodak, once practically synonymous with “instant camera” let the digital revolution pass it by. The invincible Sony Walkman was upended by mp3s and the iPod. Staid, keyboard-operated Blackberries and Nokias simply couldn’t compete with app-driven, graphical platforms from Apple and Samsung. Even today, startups like Snapchat, Slack, and Spotify gain massive scale and upend entire industries with innovative new technology that can leave less-nimble incumbents in the dustbin of tech history.

Put differently, companies that innovate are able to thrive, while those that remain dependent on yesterday’s technology and outdated business models usually fail — and deservedly so. It should never be up to regulators to pick winners and losers in a highly dynamic and competitive market, particularly if doing so constrains the market’s very dynamism. As Alfonso Lamadrid has pointed out:

It is companies and not competition enforcers which will strive or fail in the adoption of their business models, and it is therefore companies and not competition enforcers who are to decide on what business models to use. Some will prove successful and others will not; some companies will thrive and some will disappear, but with experimentation with business models, success and failure are and have always been part of the game.

In other words, we should not forget that competition law is, or should be, business-model agnostic, and that regulators are – like anyone else – far from omniscient.

Like every other technology company before them, Google and its competitors must be willing and able to adapt in order to keep up with evolving markets — just as for Lewis Carroll’s Red Queen, “it takes all the running you can do, to keep in the same place.” Google confronts a near-constantly evolving marketplace and fierce competition from unanticipated quarters; companies that build their businesses around Google face a near-constantly evolving Google. In the face of such relentless market dynamism, neither consumers nor firms are well served by regulatory policy rooted in nostalgia.  

Today’s Canadian Competition Bureau (CCB) Google decision marks yet another regulator joining the chorus of competition agencies around the world that have already dismissed similar complaints relating to Google’s Search or Android businesses (including the US FTC, the Korea FTC, the Taiwan FTC, and AG offices in Texas and Ohio).

A number of courts around the world have also rejected competition complaints against the company, including courts in the US, France, the UK, Germany, and Brazil.

After an extensive, three-year investigation into Google’s business practices in Canada, the CCB

did not find sufficient evidence that Google engaged in [search manipulation, preferential treatment of Google services, syndication agreements, distribution agreements, exclusion of competitors from its YouTube mobile app, or tying of mobile ads with those on PCs and tablets] for an anti-competitive purpose, and/or that the practices resulted in a substantial lessening or prevention of competition in any relevant market.

Like the US FTC, the CCB did find fault with Google’s use of restriction on its AdWords API — but Google had already revised those terms worldwide following the FTC investigation, and has committed to the CCB to maintain the revised terms for at least another 5 years.

Other than a negative ruling from Russia’s competition agency last year in favor of Yandex — essentially “the Russian Google,” and one of only a handful of Russian tech companies of significance (surely a coincidence…) — no regulator has found against Google on the core claims brought against it.

True, investigations in a few jurisdictions, including the EU and India, are ongoing. And a Statement of Objections in the EU’s Android competition investigation appears imminent. But at some point, regulators are going to have to take a serious look at the motivations of the entities that bring complaints before wasting more investigatory resources on their behalf.

Competitor after competitor has filed complaints against Google that amount to, essentially, a claim that Google’s superior services make it too hard to compete. But competition law doesn’t require that Google or any other large firm make life easier for competitors. Without a finding of exclusionary harm/abuse of dominance (and, often, injury to consumers), this just isn’t anticompetitive conduct — it’s competition. And the overwhelming majority of competition authorities that have examined the company have agreed.

Exactly when will regulators be a little more skeptical of competitors trying to game the antitrust laws for their own advantage?

Canada joins the chorus

The Canadian decision mirrors the reasoning that regulators around the world have employed in reaching the decision that Google hasn’t engaged in anticompetitive conduct.

Two of the more important results in the CCB’s decision relate to preferential treatment of Google’s services (e.g., promotion of its own Map or Shopping results, instead of links to third-party aggregators of the same services) — the tired “search bias” claim that started all of this — and the distribution agreements that Google enters into with device manufacturers requiring inclusion of Google search as a default installation on Google Android phones.

On these key issues the CCB was unequivocal in its conclusions.

On search bias:

The Bureau sought evidence of the harm allegedly caused to market participants in Canada as a result of any alleged preferential treatment of Google’s services. The Bureau did not find adequate evidence to support the conclusion that this conduct has had an exclusionary effect on rivals, or that it has resulted in a substantial lessening or prevention of competition in a market.

And on search distribution agreements:

Google competes with other search engines for the business of hardware manufacturers and software developers. Other search engines can and do compete for these agreements so they appear as the default search engine…. Consumers can and do change the default search engine on their desktop and mobile devices if they prefer a different one to the pre-loaded default…. Google’s distribution agreements have not resulted in a substantial lessening or prevention of competition in Canada.

And here is the crucial point of the CCB’s insight (which, so far, everyone but Russia seems to appreciate): Despite breathless claims from rivals alleging they can’t compete in the face of their placement in Google’s search results, data barriers to entry, or default Google search on mobile devices, Google does actually face significant competition. Both the search bias and Android distribution claims were dismissed essentially because, whatever competitors may prefer Google do, its conduct doesn’t actually preclude access to competing services.

The True North strong and free [of meritless competitor complaints]

Exclusionary conduct must, well, exclude. But surfacing Google’s own “subjective” search results, even if they aren’t as high quality, doesn’t exclude competitors, according to the CCB and the other regulatory agencies that have also dismissed such claims. Similarly, consumers’ ability to switch search engines (“competition is just a click away,” remember), as well as OEMs’ ability to ship devices with different search engine defaults, ensure that search competitors can access consumers.

Former FTC Commissioner Josh Wright’s analysis of “search bias” in Google’s results applies with equal force to these complaints:

It is critical to recognize that bias alone is not evidence of competitive harm and it must be evaluated in the appropriate antitrust economic context of competition and consumers, rather [than] individual competitors and websites… [but these results] are not useful from an antitrust policy perspective because they erroneously—and contrary to economic theory and evidence—presume natural and procompetitive product differentiation in search rankings to be inherently harmful.

The competitors that bring complaints to antitrust authorities seek to make a demand of Google that is rarely made of any company: that it must provide access to its competitors on equal terms. But one can hardly imagine a valid antitrust complaint arising because McDonald’s refuses to sell a Whopper. The law on duties to deal is heavily circumscribed for good reason, as Josh Wright and I have pointed out:

The [US Supreme] Court [in Trinko] warned that the imposition of a duty to deal would threaten to “lessen the incentive for the monopolist, the rival, or both to invest in… economically beneficial facilities.”… Because imposition of a duty to deal with rivals threatens to decrease the incentive to innovate by creating new ways of producing goods at lower costs, satisfying consumer demand, or creating new markets altogether, courts and antitrust agencies have been reluctant to expand the duty.

Requiring Google to link to other powerful and sophisticated online search companies, or to provide them with placement on Google Android mobile devices, on the precise terms it does its own products would reduce the incentives of everyone to invest in their underlying businesses to begin with.

This is the real threat to competition. And kudos to the CCB for recognizing it.

The CCB’s investigation was certainly thorough, and its decision appears to be well-reasoned. Other regulators should take note before moving forward with yet more costly investigations.

Scolding teacher

I have small children and, like any reasonably competent parent, I take an interest in monitoring their Internet usage. In particular, I am sensitive to what ad content they are being served and which sites they visit that might try to misuse their information. My son even uses Chromebooks at his elementary school, which underscores this concern for me, as I can’t always be present to watch what he does online. However, also like any other reasonably competent parent, I trust his school and his teacher to make good choices about what he is allowed to do online when I am not there to watch him. And so it is that I am both interested in and rather perplexed by what has EFF so worked up in its FTC complaint alleging privacy “violations” in the “Google for Education” program.

EFF alleges three “unfair or deceptive” acts that would subject Google to remedies under Section 5 of the FTCA: (1) Students logged into “Google for Education” accounts have their non-educational behavior individually tracked (e.g. performing general web searches, browsing YouTube, etc.); (2) the Chromebooks distributed as part of the “Google for Education” program have the “Chrome Sync” feature turned on by default (ostensibly in a terribly diabolical effort to give students a seamless experience between using the Chromebooks at home and at school); and (3) the school administrators running particular instances of “Google for Education” have the ability to share student geolocation information with third-party websites. Each of these violations, claims EFF, violates the K-12 School Service Provider Pledge to Safeguard Student Privacy (“Pledge”) that was authored by the Future of Privacy Forum and Software & Information Industry Association, and to which Google is a signatory. According to EFF, Google included references to its signature in its “Google for Education” marketing materials, thereby creating the expectation in parents that it would adhere to the principles, failed to do so, and thus should be punished.

The TL;DR version: EFF appears to be making some simple interpretational errors — it believes that the scope of the Pledge covers any student activity and data generated while a student is logged into a Google account. As the rest of this post will (hopefully) make clear, however, the Pledge, though ambiguous, is more reasonably read as limiting Google’s obligations to instances where a student is using  Google for Education apps, and does not apply to instances where the student is using non-Education apps — whether she is logged on using her Education account or not.

The key problem, as EFF sees it, is that Google “use[d] and share[d] … student personal information beyond what is needed for education.” So nice of them to settle complex business and educational decisions for the world! Who knew it was so easy to determine exactly what is needed for educational purposes!

Case in point: EFF feels that Google’s use of anonymous and aggregated student data in order to improve its education apps is not an educational purpose. Seriously? How can that not be useful for educational purposes — to improve its educational apps!?

And, according to EFF, the fact that Chrome Sync is ‘on’ by default in the Chromebooks only amplifies the harm caused by the non-Education data tracking because, when the students log in outside of school, their behavior can be correlated with their in-school behavior. Of course, this ignores the fact that the same limitations apply to the tracking — it happens only on non-Education apps. Thus, the Chrome Sync objection is somehow vaguely based on geography. The fact that Google can correlate an individual student’s viewing of a Neil DeGrasse Tyson video in a computer lab at school with her later finishing that video at home is somehow really bad (or so EFF claims).

EFF also takes issue with the fact that school administrators are allowed to turn on a setting enabling third parties to access the geolocation data of Google education apps users.

The complaint is fairly sparse on this issue — and the claim is essentially limited to the assertion that “[s]haring a student’s physical location with third parties is unquestionably sharing personal information beyond what is needed for educational purposes[.]”  While it’s possible that third-parties could misuse student data, a presumption that it is per se outside of any educational use for third-parties to have geolocation access at all strikes me as unreasonable.

Geolocation data, particularly on mobile devices, could allow for any number of positive and negative uses, and without more it’s hard to really take EFF’s premature concern all that seriously. Did they conduct a study demonstrating that geolocation data can serve no educational purpose or that the feature is frequently abused? Sadly, it seems doubtful. Instead, they appear to be relying upon the rather loose definition of likely harm that we have seen in FTC actions in other contexts ( more on this problem here).  

Who decides what ambiguous terms mean?

The bigger issue, however, is the ambiguity latent in the Pledge and how that ambiguity is being exploited to criticize Google. The complaint barely conceals EFF’s eagerness, and gives one the distinct feeling that the Pledge and this complaint are part of a long game. Everyone knows that Google’s entire existence revolves around the clever and innovative employment of large data sets. When Google announced that it was interested in working with schools to provide technology to students, I can only imagine how the anti-big-data-for-any-commercial-purpose crowd sat up and took notice, just waiting to pounce as soon as an opportunity, no matter how tenuous, presented itself.

EFF notes that “[u]nlike Microsoft and numerous other developers of digital curriculum and classroom management software, Google did not initially sign onto the Student Privacy Pledge with the first round of signatories when it was announced in the fall of 2014.” Apparently, it is an indictment of Google that it hesitated to adopt an external statement of privacy principles that was authored by a group that had no involvement with Google’s internal operations or business realities. EFF goes on to note that it was only after “sustained criticism” that Google “reluctantly” signed the pledge. So the company is badgered into signing a pledge that it was reluctant to sign in the first place (almost certainly for exactly these sorts of reasons), and is now being skewered by the proponents of the pledge that it was reluctant to sign. Somehow I can’t help but get the sense that this FTC complaint was drafted even before Google signed the Pledge.

According to the Pledge, Google promised to:

  1. “Not collect, maintain, use or share student personal information beyond that needed for authorized educational/school purposes, or as authorized by the parent/student.”
  2. “Not build a personal profile of a student other than for supporting authorized educational/school purposes or as authorized by the parent/student.”
  3. “Not knowingly retain student personal information beyond the time period required to support the authorized educational/school purposes, or as authorized by the parent/student.”

EFF interprets “educational purpose” as anything a student does while logged into her education account, and by extension, any of the even non-educational activity will count as “student personal information.” I think that a fair reading of the Pledge undermines this position, however, and that the correct interpretation of the Pledge is that “educational purpose” and “student personal information” are more tightly coupled such that Google’s ability to collect student data is only circumscribed when the student is actually using the Google for Education Apps.

So what counts as “student personal information” in the pledge? “Student personal information” is “personally identifiable information as well as other information when it is both collected and maintained on an individual level and is linked to personally identifiable information.”  Although this is fairly broad, it is limited by the definition of “Educational/School purposes” which are “services or functions that customarily take place at the direction of the educational institution/agency or their teacher/employee, for which the institutions or agency would otherwise use its own employees, and that aid in the administration or improvement of educational and school activities.” (emphasis added).

This limitation in the Pledge essentially sinks EFF’s complaint. A major part of EFF’s gripe is that when the students interact with non-Education services, Google tracks them. However, the Pledge limits the collection of information only in contexts where “the institutions or agency would otherwise use its own employees” — a definition that clearly does not extend to general Internet usage. This definition would reasonably cover activities like administering classes, tests, and lessons. This definition would not cover activity such as general searches, watching videos on YouTube and the like. Key to EFF’s error is that the pledge is not operative on accounts but around activity — in particular educational activity “for which the institutions or agency would otherwise use its own employees.”

To interpret Google’s activity in the way that EFF does is to treat the Pledge as a promise never to do anything, ever, with the data of a student logged into an education account, whether generated as part of Education apps or otherwise. That just can’t be right. Thinking through the implications of EFF’s complaint, the ultimate end has to be that Google needs to obtain a permission slip from parents before offering access to Google for Education accounts. Administrators and Google are just not allowed to provision any services otherwise.

And here is where the long game comes in. EFF and its peers induced Google to sign the Pledge all the while understanding that their interpretation would necessarily require a re-write of Google’s business model.  But not only is this sneaky, it’s also ridiculous. By way of analogy, this would be similar to allowing parents an individual say over what textbooks or other curricular materials their children are allowed to access. This would either allow for a total veto by a single parent, or else would require certain students to be frozen out of participating in homework and other activities being performed with a Google for Education app. That may work for Yale students hiding from microaggressions, but it makes no sense to read such a contentious and questionable educational model into Google’s widely-offered apps.

I think a more reasonable interpretation should prevail. The privacy pledge is meant to govern the use of student data while that student is acting as a student — which in the case of Google for Education apps would mean while using said apps. Plenty of other Google apps could be used for educational purposes, but Google is intentionally delineating a sensible dividing line in order to avoid exactly this sort of problem (as well as problems that could arise under other laws directed at student activity, like COPPA, most notably). It is entirely unreasonable to presume that Google, by virtue of its socially desirable behavior of enabling students to have ready access to technology, is thereby prevented from tracking individuals’ behavior on non-Education apps as it chooses to define them.

What is the Harm?

According to EFF, there are two primary problems with Google’s gathering and use of student data: gathering and using individual data in non-Education apps, and gathering and using anonymized and aggregated data in the Education apps. So what is the evil end to which Google uses this non-Education gathered data?

“Google not only collects and stores the vast array of student data described above, but uses it for its own purposes such as improving Google products and serving targeted advertising (within non-Education Google services)”

The horrors! Google wants to use student behavior to improve its services! And yes, I get it, everyone hates ads — I hate ads too — but at some point you need to learn to accept that the wealth of nominally free apps available to every user is underwritten by the ad-sphere. So if Google is using the non-Education behavior of students to gain valuable insights that it can monetize and thereby subsidize its services, so what? This is life in the twenty-first century, and until everyone collectively decides that we prefer to pay for services up front, we had better get used to being tracked and monetized by advertisers.

But as noted above, whether you think Google should or shouldn’t be gathering this data, it seems clear that the data generated from use of non-Education apps doesn’t fall under the Pledge’s purview. Thus, perhaps sensing the problems in its non-Education use argument, EFF also half-heartedly attempts to demonize certain data practices that Google employs in the Education context. In short, Google aggregates and anonymizes the usage data of the Google for Education apps, and, according to EFF, this is a violation of the Pledge:

“Aggregating and anonymizing students’ browsing history does not change the intensely private nature of the data … such that Google should be free to use it[.]”

Again the “harm” is that Google actually wants to improve the Educational apps:  “Google has acknowledged that it collects, maintains, and uses student information via Chrome Sync (in aggregated and anonymized form) for the purpose of improving Google products”

This of course doesn’t violate the Pledge. After all, signatories to the Pledge promise only that they will “[n]ot collect, maintain, use or share student personal information beyond that needed for authorized educational/school purposes.” It’s eminently reasonable to include the improvement of the provisioned services as part of an “authorized educational … purpose[.]” And by ensuring that the data is anonymized and aggregated, Google is clearly acknowledging that some limits are appropriate in the education context — that it doesn’t need to collect individual and identifiable personal information for education purposes — but that improving its education products the same way it improves all its products is an educational purpose.

How are the harms enhanced by Chrome Sync? Honestly, it’s not really clear from EFF’s complaint. I believe that the core of EFF’s gripe (at least here) has to do with how the two data gathering activities may be correlated together. Google has ChromeSync enabled by default, so when the students sign on at different locations, the Education apps usage is recorded and grouped (still anonymously) for service improvement alongside non-Education use. And the presence of these two data sets being generated side-by-side creates the potential to track students in the educational capacity by correlating with information generated in their non-educational capacity.

Maybe there are potential flaws in the manner in which the data is anonymized. Obviously EFF thinks anonymized data won’t stay anonymized. That is a contentious view, to say the least, but regardless, it is in no way compelled by the Pledge. But more to the point, merely having both data sets does not do anything that clearly violates the Pledge.

The End Game

So what do groups like EFF actually want? It’s important to consider the effects on social welfare that this approach to privacy takes, and its context. First, the Pledge was overwhelmingly designed for and signed by pure education companies, and not large organizations like Google, Apple, or Microsoft — thus the nature of the Pledge itself is more or less ill-fitted to a multi-faceted business model. If we follow the logical conclusions of this complaint, a company like Google would face an undesirable choice: On the one hand, it can provide hardware to schools at zero cost or heavily subsidized prices, and also provide a suite of useful educational applications. However, as part of this socially desirable donation, it must also place a virtual invisibility shield around students once they’ve signed into their accounts. From that point on, regardless of what service they use — even non-educational ones — Google is prevented from using any data students generate. At this point, one has to question Google’s incentive to remove huge swaths of the population from its ability to gather data. If Google did nothing but provide the hardware, it could simply leave its free services online as-is, and let schools adopt or not adopt them as they wish (subject of course to extant legislation such as COPPA) — thereby allowing itself to possibly collect even more data on the same students.

On the other hand, if not Google, then surely many other companies would think twice before wading into this quagmire, or, when they do, they might offer severely limited services. For instance, one way of complying with EFF’s view of how the Pledge works would be to shut off access to all non-Education services. So, students logged into an education account could only access the word processing and email services, but would be prevented from accessing YouTube, web search and other services — and consequently suffer from a limitation of potentially novel educational options.

EFF goes on to cite numerous FTC enforcement actions and settlements from recent years. But all of the cited examples have one thing in common that the current complaint does not: they all are violations of § 5 for explicit statements or representations made by a company to consumers. EFF’s complaint, on the other hand, is based on a particular interpretation of an ambiguous document generally drafted, and outside of the the complicated business practice at issue. What counts as “student information” when a user employs a general purpose machine for both educational purposes and non-educational purposes?  The Pledge — at least the sections that EFF relies upon in its complaint — is far from clear and doesn’t cover Google’s behavior in an obvious manner.

Of course, the whole complaint presumes that the nature of Google’s services was somehow unfair or deceptive to parents — thus implying that there was at least some material reliance on the Pledge in parental decision making. However, this misses a crucial detail: it is the school administrators who contract with Google for the Chromebooks and Google for Education services, and not the parents or the students.  Then again, maybe EFF doesn’t care and it is, as I suggest above, just interested in a long game whereby it can shoehorn Google’s services into some new sort of privacy regime. This isn’t all that unusual, as we have seen even the White House in other contexts willing to rewrite business practices wholly apart from the realities of privacy “harms.”

But in the end, this approach to privacy is just a very efficient way to discover the lowest common denominator in charity. If it even decides to brave the possible privacy suits, Google and other similarly situated companies will provide the barest access to the most limited services in order to avoid extensive liability from ambiguous pledges. And, perhaps even worse for overall social welfare, using the law to force compliance with voluntarily enacted, ambiguous codes of conduct is a sure-fire way to make sure that there are fewer and more limited codes of conduct in the future.