Google’s market dominance in search and advertising, when combined with growing strength in a wide variety of online services like video, documents, telephony and more could be seen as the Internet equivalent of the monopolistic bundling that Microsoft faced government anti-trust action for in the late ’90s. Fred Vogelstein wrote a long and important article on the case the government could be building against Google yesterday on Wired.com.
The Obama administration has appointed a Google critic who’s invoked the Microsoft comparison directly in the past to now lead the US Justice Department’s antitrust division. Wired’s Vogelstein says that if legal action is going to be taken, it would require years of political work first to build up public support for prosecution in order to be successful. The government and Google have already begun to jockey for public favor in the pre-legal stage of the anti-trust dance.
Biasing Search Results
The anti-trust argument against Google is essentially that the company’s secret search algorithms could be used to apply unfair, anti-competitive pressure to drive web users towards other Google services instead of services from other companies in markets like video, telephony, maps, email or whatever other markets Google moves into. It’s like Micorosoft bundling Internet Explorer with Windows in a way that was unfair to competing browsers.
When a vendor uses monopoly power in one market to cut the air off from competitors in other markets, then there is less incentive for new competitors to bring innovation to those markets.
Google says its goal is to “organize the world’s information” – but it is also doing an increasing amount of information delivery. The risk that the organizing could favor the company’s own delivery channels seems worthy of consideration.
Is There Anything to Worry About?
Many people already say that launching a startup that competes with any Google product is suicide, just because of the company’s size. (See the somewhat relevant story of Kiko’s calendars, for example.) If investigators find reason to believe that Google is using its search dominance unfairly regarding non-search competitors, then anti-trust talk could turn into legal action. Talk itself, though, could help build that case with the public before it’s built in court.
As Vogelstein explains in his Wired writeup, Google’s “trust us, we don’t believe in being evil” position doesn’t hold a lot of water with anti-trust types. For the rest of us, though, we may believe that YouTube is the best online video site, that Gmail is the best webmail, that Google Voice is the best phone system, etc. and so not be surprised or upset to see those sites show up at the top of our search results pages regularly.
There was some concern that Google’s Wikipedia competitor, Knol, would receive preferential treatment and dethrone Wikipedia from the top of many search pages, but that hasn’t happened. That might be too obvious, or it might have been a sign that there’s nothing to worry about.
How about you? Do you believe that Google’s dominance across multiple technologies is unfairly anti-competitive? Do you trust Google to use its power wisely and fairly?