By Geoffrey Manne and Berin Szoka
[Cross posted at TechFreedom.org]
Back in September, the Senate Judiciary Committee’s Antitrust Subcommittee held a hearing on “The Power of Google: Serving Consumers or Threatening Competition?” Given the harsh questioning from the Subcommittee’s Chairman Herb Kohl (D-WI) and Ranking Member Mike Lee (R-UT), no one should have been surprised by the letter they sent yesterday to the Federal Trade Commission asking for a “thorough investigation” of the company. At least this time the danger is somewhat limited: by calling for the FTC to investigate Google, the senators are thus urging the agency to do . . . exactly what it’s already doing.
So one must wonder about the real aim of the letter. Unfortunately, the goal does not appear to be to offer an objective appraisal of the complex issues intended to be addressed at the hearing. That’s disappointing (though hardly surprising) and underscores what we noted at the time of the hearing: There’s something backward about seeing a company hauled before a hostile congressional panel and asked to defend itself, rather than its self-appointed prosecutors being asked to defend their case.
Senators Kohl and Lee insist that they take no position on the legality of Google’s actions, but their lopsided characterization of the issues in the letter—and the fact that the FTC is already doing what they purport to desire as the sole outcome of the letter!—leaves little room for doubt about their aim: to put political pressure on the FTC not merely to investigate, but to reach a particular conclusion and bring a case in court (or simply to ratchet up public pressure from its bully pulpit).
The five page letter concludes with, literally, three sentences presenting Google’s case, one of which reads, in its entirety, “Google strongly denies the arguments of its critics.” The derision is palpable—as if only a craven monopolist would deign to actually deny the iron-clad arguments of Google’s competitors so painstakingly reproduced by Senators Kohl and Lee in the preceding four pages. This is neither rigorous analysis nor objective reporting on the contents of the Senate’s hearing.
While we worry about particularly successful companies being singled out for punishment, we hold no brief for Google in this debate. Instead, in all our writings, we’ve tried to present a consistently skeptical view about a worrisome trend in antitrust enforcement in high tech markets: error-prone and costly intervention in markets that are ill-understood and fast-moving, to the great detriment of consumers and progress generally. Although our institutions have received financial support from Google among a range of other companies, organizations and individuals, our work is focused on this broad mission; we have no obligation or intention to support any company simply because it finds value in supporting our mission.
We’ve defended (and one of us has even worked for) Microsoft in the past, and just yesterday, we lamented the fact that the Obama Justice Department and the FCC have effectively blocked Google’s arch-rival, AT&T, from buying T-Mobile. Rather than defend any particular company, our goal, to paraphrase Hayek, is to “demonstrate to [regulators] how little they really know about what they imagine they can design”—lest they undermine how competition actually works in the name of defending outdated models of how they think it should work. Unfortunately, the letter from Senators Kohl and Lee does nothing to assuage our concern and suggests instead that crass politics, rather than sensible economics, could determine the outcome of cases like this one—if not in a court of law, then in the court of public opinion and extra-legal intimidation.
To begin with, the letter asserts that “Google faces competition from only one general search engine, Bing,” suggesting that only Bing (and it, only ineffectively) could keep Google in check. In essence, the Senators are prejudging an essential question on which any case against Google would turn: market definition. But why would the market not include other tools for information retrieval? Is it not at least worth mentioning that more and more Internet users are finding information and spending time on social networks like Facebook and Twitter, while more and more advertisers are spending their money on these Google competitors? Isn’t it clear that search itself is evolving from “ten blue links” into something more social, multi-faceted and interactive?
In a remarkable leap, the senators then identify the specific alleged abuse that Google’s alleged market power leads to: search bias. That’s remarkable because, other than the breathless claims of disgruntled competitors (given plenty of air time at the September hearing), there is actually no evidence that search bias is, in fact, harmful to consumers—which is what antitrust is concerned with. (Read both sides of this debate in TechFreedom’s free ebook, The Next Digital Decade: Essays on the Future of the Internet.)
As our colleague, Josh Wright, has thoroughly demonstrated, this “own-content” bias is actually an infrequent phenomenon and is simply not consistent with an actionable claim of anticompetitive foreclosure. Moreover, among search engines, Google references its own content far less frequently than does Bing (which favors Microsoft content in the first search result when no other search engine does so more than twice as often as Google favors its own content).
Of course, none of this is even hinted at in the Senators’ letter, which seems intended to condemn Google for “preferencing” its own content (under the pretense of withholding judgment). It’s a little like condemning Target for deigning to use its trucks to supply inventory only to its own stores instead of Wal-Mart’s, or, say, condemning a congressman for targeting earmarks for his own state or district. Earmark bias! Continue Reading…