Debate over the government’s anti-trust review of Google is clearly heating up with the end of the year approaching, as I recently reported in the Merc. FTC chairman Jon Liebowitz has said he hoped to have either a resolution or a decision on how to proceed before the year is over. And that’s prompted friends and critics of the Internet search giant to weigh in on charges that Google has treated competitors unfairly by, among other things, allegedly favoring its own products and services in displaying search results.
One coalition of Google competitors renewed its call for a significant government intervention on Monday. In a blog post, the FairSearch group argued that the government should seriously consider such remedies as requiring Google to divest its own “vertical products” — a reference to Google services that provide information on travel, restaurants or local businesses, in competition with some FairSearch members.
“Enforcers must pursue remedies that are effective and enforceable,” the group said. FairSearch members include such Google rivals as the online travel services TripAdvisor, HotWire, Kayak and Expedia; shopping services FoundEm and ShopCity; and other companies that have butted heads with Google including Oracle and Microsoft, maker of the rival Bing search engine.
FairSearch is also suggesting the government could appoint a “technical monitor” to audit and inspect Google’s search results and report any concerns to the FTC. Such a monitor would have access to Google’s search algorithms, “on a confidential basis,” according to an interview with an Expedia attorney by the online news site Politico.
Those search algorithms are Google’s crown jewels, of course, so the odds that the company would ever agree to open its code to an outsider seem pretty slim.
Meanwhile, two prominent Silicon Valley representatives in Congress spoke up Monday on Google’s behalf, with a letter to the FTC’s Liebowitz that warns against applying its legal authority regarding “unfair or deceptive practices” as the basis for an anti-trust action — an unusual use of that authority which some of Google’s critics have been urging.
“Such a massive expansion of FTC jurisdiction would be unwarranted, unwise and likely to have negative implications for our nation’s economy,” cautioned Reps. Anna Eshoo and Zoe Lofgren, who went on to say that such a move “could lead to overbroad authority that amplifies uncertainty and stifles growth.”
The two representatives, both Democrats, also complained about recent news articles that cited unnamed sources in reporting that the FTC staff has recommended the commission proceed with a lawsuit against Google.
Some observers believe those leaks were part of an effort by the FTC to pressure Google into a negotiated settlement. For their part, Lofgren and Eshoo wrote that “the release of sensitive details from an internal draft FTC staff report is irresponsible and potentially compromises an investigation that has yet to be voted on by the full Commission.”
Stay tuned …