More than one week after the Federal Trade Commission announced it had unanimously decided not to pursue antitrust charges against Google for so-called "search bias," the decision is still raising eyebrows.
Time's David Futrelle says critics are wondering whether the FTC was "seduced" by Google's famous do-not-evil mantra when it decided against bringing charges. Last week, the FTC said that it had decided that Google displays links to its own services -- like Google Maps -- high in the results in order to benefit users.
Futrelle questions whether Google's move really does benefit users. "While in the short term consumers benefit from the convenience of getting an instant map in their search results, there could be harm in the long term if Google is able to use its dominance in the search-engine world to wipe out competitors in other areas," he writes.
Seton Hall University law professor Frank Pasquale and University of Virginia law and media professor Siva Vaidhyanathan write in Dissent that even though the FTC "surrendered," other authorities "are still considering whether Google cuts off upstart, specialized search engines in order to expand its own internet empire." They add: "Without strong action, centrifugal tendencies will increasingly dominate the internet, as innovation will centralize in the few mega-firms capable of promoting new services on an ever-less-level playing field."
Clearly, Google's critics -- and rivals -- are still disappointed that the FTC didn't bring a so-called "search-bias" case. But, as the FTC recognized, that was always a non-starter. Even if the agency had wanted to accuse Google of violating antitrust laws via "search bias," the concept is too fuzzy to stand up in court. It would require the agency to show that Google harmed consumers by failing to return results based on relevance. But relevance isn't all that easy to define, much less prove.
Besides, even though Google has a large market share, it isn't a monopoly in the same way as, say, a utility company. After all, the only reason that Google dominates search is because people find its results helpful. But that could change overnight. In the tech world, new companies are constantly stepping in to fill a void left by the larger ones. Just look at photo app Snapchat, which launched in 2011 and is now sending 50 million self-destructing photos each day.
For his part, FTC Chairman Jon Leibowitz is defending the agency's decision. He points out today in an interview with Talking Points Memo that all five commissioners agreed with the decision not to target Google for so-called "search bias." “Under facts we found, all five of us, from liberal Democrat to conservative Republican, agreed that the evidence militated against an antitrust case,” Leibowitz told TPM. "I think that as time goes on, more and more people will recognize we did justice.”