Experts: Google antitrust probe to shed light on search

But Google supporters question whether there's evidence that the company has been anticompetitive

The U.S. Federal Trade Commission's antitrust investigation into Google's search engine could shine some light on the secret inner workings of the company's search ranking decisions and the relationship between advertising and free search results, some Google critics said Friday.

With other Google services being integrated with its search engine and Google offering both paid search and free search results, there's an "enormous possibility for abuse," said Eric Clemons, an operations and information management professor at the University of Pennsylvania.

Google's paid search service gives the company an incentive to keep its free search results from getting too good, Clemons said at a Technology Policy Institute (TPI) forum on Google and antitrust in Washington, D.C. "I've always wanted to say this in Washington: Follow the money," he said.

The FTC's antitrust probe of Google, reported in June, will give investigators a chance to see how Google ranks search results, giving the public a "first line of defense" against anticompetitive practices, said Oren Bracha, a law professor focused on technology and intellectual property at the University of Texas.

"The whole search process is shrouded in secrecy," Bracha said. "It's a big black box, and nobody except Google really knows what's going on in there. Somebody gets to open the black box."

While Clemons and Bracha argued in favor of an investigation, other speakers on Friday questioned whether an antitrust probe of Google was appropriate. Though some competitors have complained about Google's search dominance and its search rankings, antitrust cases must show harm to consumers, said Geoffrey Manne, founder of the International Center for Law and Economics, an organization that has received support from Google.

There don't seem to be any major complaints against Google alleging consumer harm, Manne said.

Also, although Google has become a huge company, that's not a good reason to bring an antitrust lawsuit against the company, said Manne and Michael Katz, a business professor at the University of California, Berkeley. U.S. law allows companies to become monopolies, as long as they act fairly, said Katz, who has worked with Google.

"In the United States, there's nothing wrong with making lots of money," Katz said.

Google should have the ability to add services and integrate search functionality with other products as a way to better serve customers, Katz said. Microsoft's Bing search engine integrates an airfare pricing service, and there are few complaints, he said.

People complaining about Google adding services to search have the attitude of, "Innovation? We don't need no stinkin' innovation," Katz said.

Thomas Lenard, TPI's president, questioned how FTC investigators could tell if Google's search results were biased. "If you were at the FTC, what would you be looking at?" he said.

Determining search bias will not be easy, Bracha said. "One cannot imagine equal, neutral treatment for everybody in this context," he said. "Search, in order to be useful at all, is inherently hierarchical. Somebody has to be at the bottom."

But the American Homeowners Grassroots Alliance, an advocacy group that doesn't disclose its supporters, has heard "countless complaints" from small-business marketers of niche products who see their Google search rankings drop for no apparent reason, said Bruce Hahn, the group's president.

"I don't know what other explanation there could be, other than there's some bias in Google search, and for what reasons, other than financial gain?" Hahn said.

Friday's Google antitrust forum may be a preview of a U.S. Senate hearing next Wednesday. The Senate Judiciary Committee's antitrust subcommittee will host a hearing entitled, "The Power of Google: Serving Consumers or Threatening Competition?" at 2 p.m. that day. Eric Schmidt, Google's executive chairman, is scheduled to be a witness.

Grant Gross covers technology and telecom policy in the U.S. government for The IDG News Service. Follow Grant on Twitter at GrantGross. Grant's e-mail address is grant_gross@idg.com.

Join the PC World newsletter!

Error: Please check your email address.

Tags advertisingBerkeleyantitrustGoogleGeoffrey ManneEric ClemonsBruce Hahneric schmidtAmerican Homeowners Grassroots Alliancegovernment

Struggling for Christmas presents this year? Check out our Christmas Gift Guide for some top tech suggestions and more.

Keep up with the latest tech news, reviews and previews by subscribing to the Good Gear Guide newsletter.

Grant Gross

IDG News Service

Most Popular Reviews

Follow Us

Best Deals on GoodGearGuide

Shopping.com

Latest News Articles

Resources

GGG Evaluation Team

Kathy Cassidy

STYLISTIC Q702

First impression on unpacking the Q702 test unit was the solid feel and clean, minimalist styling.

Anthony Grifoni

STYLISTIC Q572

For work use, Microsoft Word and Excel programs pre-installed on the device are adequate for preparing short documents.

Steph Mundell

LIFEBOOK UH574

The Fujitsu LifeBook UH574 allowed for great mobility without being obnoxiously heavy or clunky. Its twelve hours of battery life did not disappoint.

Andrew Mitsi

STYLISTIC Q702

The screen was particularly good. It is bright and visible from most angles, however heat is an issue, particularly around the Windows button on the front, and on the back where the battery housing is located.

Simon Harriott

STYLISTIC Q702

My first impression after unboxing the Q702 is that it is a nice looking unit. Styling is somewhat minimalist but very effective. The tablet part, once detached, has a nice weight, and no buttons or switches are located in awkward or intrusive positions.

Latest Jobs

Shopping.com

Don’t have an account? Sign up here

Don't have an account? Sign up now

Forgot password?