Common Sense: Google Finds a Line Between ‘Aggressive’ and ‘Evil’

“Don’t Be Evil,” the founders of Google, Larry Page and Sergey Brin, proclaimed in their 2004 “Owner’s Manual” for prospective investors in the company. Despite widespread cynicism, criticism and even mockery, the company has never backed down on this core premise, reiterating in its most recent list of the “things we know to be true” that “you can make money without doing evil.”
Jon Leibowitz, chairman of the F.T.C., at the announcement of its Google antitrust ruling.
Yet the company has been dogged for years by widespread allegations that it violates its own pledge by manipulating the search results that remain the core of the company and the primary source of its enormous profits.
Google insists that its results have always been “unbiased and objective” and that they are “the best we know how to produce.” But for competitive reasons, it never disclosed the secret algorithms that produce those results, so no one outside the company knew for sure. A growing chorus of complaints from companies like Expedia, Yelp and, especially, Microsoft that Google manipulates the results to favor its interests at the expense of competitors led both the United States government and the European Union to take up the issue. On Thursday, after nearly two years of investigation, the Federal Trade Commission rendered a verdict: Google isn’t evil.
It may have been “aggressive,” as the commission delicately put it. But “regarding the specific allegations that the company biased its search results to hurt competition, the evidence collected to date did not justify legal action by the commission,” said Beth Wilkinson, outside counsel to the F.T.C. “The F.T.C.’s mission is to protect competition, and not individual competitors.”
The decision is “a huge victory for Google,” Randal Picker, a professor of commercial law at the University of Chicago Law School and a specialist in antitrust and intellectual property, told me just after this week’s decision.
It’s also a vindication of the integrity of Google’s search results and the company’s credibility. “There’s never been any evidence that consumers were harmed by Google’s practices, and no evidence that Google ever engaged in any manipulation that violates antitrust law,” said Eric Goldman, a professor of law and director of the High Tech Law Institute at Santa Clara University School of Law.
The decision is also likely to set standards for competition on the Internet for years to come. It’s a blow to competitors like Microsoft, which has been stirring up opposition to Google for years, not to mention newer rivals like Facebook, Apple and Amazon. “The gloves will be off,” Professor Picker predicted. “The F.T.C. has indicated it’s going to be taking a very cautious approach toward regulating competition on the Internet.”
But will the decision ultimately prove to be good for consumers?
The F.T.C. did secure some concessions from Google regarding patent licensing and advertiser options. But to call those a slap on the wrist would be an overstatement.
What mattered most to both Google users and competitors was Google’s search practices, which had never been put under the regulatory microscope to such a degree and which the F.T.C. left untouched.
Google’s search results have evolved significantly from its early, simpler days. When I searched for “flight JFK to LAX” this week, I got three categories of results: paid ads at the top and on the right; a Google-produced chart comparing flight options with the disclaimer, which you need to click on, that “Google may be compensated by these providers”; and so-called organic results below that. The first two organic results were entries for Expedia, a rival to Google’s travel site. But given the layout and size of my screen, none of the organic results were visible unless I scrolled down.
However clearly labeled, the prominence of Google’s own travel results gives pause to some antitrust experts. “Location is important,” Professor Picker said. “No one thinks otherwise. Years ago, it was important for airlines’ reservations systems to be on the first screen. But I’m not sure this is an antitrust problem.”