Right now former Google Chairman Eric Schmidt is being grilled on Capitol Hill in the Anti-Trust hearings that the United States Legislature is holding about the search engine (and cloud services) provider. Essentially Google is under fire for promoting its own content ahead of that of competitors. So, for example, it would prioritize Google Local listings/reviews above those of Yelp.
If Google gives their own products preference in their searches – that’s their business and they have every right to do so. Were some sort of law to come out of this in the form of a suit against Google or a statute passed by congress, it would attack the common practices of virtually every organization running a search engine on their site.
Here are some examples to illustrate how problematic that precedent would be:
- Think “Sponsored Listings”: ALL search engines that monetize their traffic are already prioritizing content (including their own) ahead of that of competitors. The “sponsored” listings that typically wrap the top and left side of most search engine results pages give premium space for a fee.
- Think “Google.com”: The sheer fact that Google links to ANY of its content on its front page is prioritizing its content above that of competitors. That includes, for example, Google Doodles – the clever animations of the Google logo the company has been doing since 1998. Developers of interactive multimedia entertainment sites could cry foul just as readily as anyone.
- Think “Amazon”: Amazon.com routinely promotes its own products on its front page and in searches of its site. The algorithms that drive “relevance” include factors like retailers that are partners of Amazon who offer free “Super Saver” shipping.
IRL, an analog comparison would be the practice of supermarket chains giving their own “generic” products prime placement next to the “name brands.” None of these legislators is calling for that practice to be illegal – but it’s exactly the same thing.
The scrutiny being applied to Google is well-intentioned, but it’s being applied by tech-illiterate old white men who don’t understand the new paradigm of mass communication enabled by the Internet.
Unfortunately they’re trying to apply the old-school standards for mass media communication (which are predicated on things like finite radio/tv broadcasting frequencies or the number of newspapers in print) to a medium that has an infinite number of “frequencies.” I understand where they’re coming from because media conglomerates have lobbied the FCC regulations on media ownership into obsolescence, resulting in fewer choices for consumers.
That isn’t the case with the Internet, however because citizens/customers aren’t bound by geographical limits. Unlike TV, radio, utilities, or any of a number of other services – Internet users have ultimate freedom to go wherever they want and if Google ceases to serve them well – they can flee elsewhere en masse simply by changing the default page that loads in their web browser.
If these legislators actually want to be of service (particularly Al Franken, who I love) – they should be attacking Google’s faustian bargain with Verizon that threatens Net Neutrality.