Has Google Done a “Matrix” Bullet Dodge On the FTC?

Search Engine Journal , November 23, 2012

If the reports are true, the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) may not have the ammunition to proceed with an anti-trust case versus Google. Their ongoing investigation of allegations that the search giant leverages its search dominance unfairly versus rivals, simply may not hold water. “Unnamed sources” have told various media outlets there is not enough evidence.

Breaking the news first, Bloomberg’s Sara Forden and Jeff Bliss sourced “people familiar with the matter” saying the FTC are, in fact, unsure of the weight of their evidence. Complaints have suggested Google unfairly positions its own products, or those of close business associates, above the search rankings of their competition. FTC regulators are also weighing Google’s value proposition for consumers versus any potential harm to competitors.

Almost all the experts agree, Google’s most threatening legal hurdle yet is the FTC’s concern that Google have skewed search results in their own favor. Whether or not the FTC commissioners have actually softened their position on a suit, or are reevaluating their position, is not completely clear. Suggesting more evidence is needed, may indeed be completely different from “dropping the case” due to lack of evidence. Reports of EU regulators “softening” their view turned out to be erroneous as we learned the other day.

The EU has not, in matter of fact, given up any ground. FTC’s counterpart BEUC has illustrated the reverse in their investigation of Google in the EU. As for Wednesday’s breaking report, and the subsequent reporting, opinions are mixed, as should be expected.

Liz Gannes, over at AllThings D, encapsulates the fight pretty well as she quotes Google’s argument that their search is; “delivering robust and helpful information on the spot”, versus delivering text links.

Whether or not regulators value these ideas, or deem them ”lawyer talk” or not, is a matter for conjecture. It seems obvious though, that a lot of legal “fencing” has to be going on, this issue being worth tens of billions potentially.

As a precursor to this more recent news, one of the world’s leading experts on search, Danny Sullivan of Search Engine Land, came right out on CNET and iterated Google should not be sued. Sullivan gives a convincing rationale that if Google is sued over these issues, the FTC will be penalizing the company for as he calls; “doing exactly what a good search engine should do.” It should be noted here that Danny is a regular contributor to CNET.

In corroboratory news, the FTC also seems to be under pressure from interested legislators to in effect, cease and desists from what some call “a massive expansion of FTC jurisdiction”. California Representatives Anna Eshoo and Zoe Lofgren have taken to task what they say is some sort of Federal Trade Commission “power grab”. The Silicon Valley lawmakers are among those suggesting expanding the FTC’s Section 5 powers to deal with anti-trust matters may run awry.

On the other side of the aisle where Google alleged unfairness is concerned, even the most stringent detractors seem to agree the FTC simply demonstrating Google has a ranking bias, may not be enough to carry off the suit. As time grows short for FTC Chairman Jon Leibowitz to come to a determination, it seems as if more and more “heavyweights” are weighing in on the side of Google. Meanwhile, complainants such as the Fair Search consortium, and Microsoft seem to be mute where support from the media and legislators is concerned.

Under heavy scrutiny in the EU, by the Consumer Unity and Trust Society (CUTS); in India; in China; and elsewhere, the strength of Google’s search market share is the primary cause for allegations of unfairness. And too, Google’s recent shifts in policy toward webmasters, rival companies, and other groups, seems to add fuel for discontent.

At risk in this FTC matter is not only the creditably of that agency, and its chairman Jon Leibowitz, even the system in place to ensure fairness.

As a parting shot here, imagine what kind of “advocacy” Google may feel if all this anti-trust chatter turns out to be nothing more than lobbying as usual?

I leave you with a quote from the legendary Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev.

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