Commentary

Senate Hearing To Address Google 'Monopoly' -- And Maybe 'Wi-Spy' Issues

Google executive chairman Eric Schmidt could be in for some pointed questions tomorrow, when the Senate antitrust panel holds a hearing focused on the search giant.

The hearing, which carries the title "The Power of Google: Serving Consumers or Threatening Competition," appears aimed at addressing Google's dominance in the search market. In advance of the hearing, the anti-Google group FairSearch -- a consortium that includes Microsoft -- pressed for the Federal Trade Commission to investigate Google. The group's latest move was to release a sponsored survey stating that 79% of Americans want the FTC to investigate Google "for restricting fair competition and misleading consumers."

A different Google critic, Consumer Watchdog, clearly hopes that lawmakers at tomorrow's hearing will branch out into privacy issues. In one of its more attention-grabbing moves, Google critic Consumer Watchdog has hired mimes to dress up in white track suits and wear "Wi-Spy" glasses while following people in the Dirksen Senate Office Building. Consumer Watchdog says its purpose is to "dramatize how Google is recording everything consumers do on the Internet."

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Consumer Watchdog supports do-not-track legislation that would require Web companies to allow consumers to eschew online tracking. The group also released yet another animated clip lampooning Google's privacy practices. The one-minute "Supercharge" clip includes real quotes by company officials. Schmidt's character says, "Your phone knows who you are, where you are and where you are going. It can see your path" -- a quote taken from a CNN interview. CEO Larry Page's character responds, "And we're always looking for ways to supercharge the Android ecosystem" -- also a real statement.

The clip ends with a voiceover saying, "Information is power. Break up the Google monopoly. Tell Congress to pass 'Do Not Track Me' legislation."

While Consumer Watchdog rightly questions some of Google's positions, it's unclear how do-not-track legislation would affect Google's market position given that rivals ranging from Apple to Microsoft to smaller ad networks would also be affected by new privacy laws. What's more, Google doesn't need to track people at all in order to show them search ads.

Whether lawmakers will seize upon Consumer Watchdog's campaign and use the hearing as an opportunity to explore online privacy issues remains to be seen.

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