The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) published a comment today pushing against a rising media narrative that it may have gone too easy on Google during its multi-year antitrust probe on the search company’s ranking of results to benefit its own products. In the end, Google agreed to change some of its business practices, and the FTC closed its investigation.
While the issue was resolved between the government and Google in the first days of 2013, the issue came roaring back to life after, using the FTC’s own wording, a chunk of an internal file from the agency fell victim to “inadvertent disclosure.”
The Wall Street Journal published the document, which caught fire over lines from its pages stating that, at least in the view of some FTC staffers, “Google’s conduct has resulted – and will result – in real harm to consumers and to innovation in the online search and advertising markets.”
The document goes on to list three core ways that Google had run amiss of the law [Page: 116]:
The document is only a fraction of the record, making it at best a partial signpost.
The first Wall Street Journal report was followed by a second piece from the publication detailing Google’s ability to attain meetings at the White House, attempting to paint a mix of interests: Pointing out that on election night in 2012, Google’s Eric Schmidt “was personally overseeing a voter-turnout software system for Mr. Obama,” and so forth.
The FTC is not enthused. The agency notes in its memo that a bipartisan group of commissioners agreed that there was no “legal basis for action with respect to [search]” at the time, as its view was that Google’s search activities “were not, ‘on balance, demonstrably anticompetitive.’”
Does that sentiment match the FTC’s prior words? Returning to the 2013 decision, here’s the agency [Formatting, excision: TechCrunch]:
The FTC conducted an extensive investigation into allegations that Google had manipulated its search algorithms to harm vertical websites and unfairly promote its own competing vertical properties, a practice commonly known as “search bias.” […]
[T]he FTC concluded that the introduction of Universal Search, as well as additional changes made to Google’s search algorithms – even those that may have had the effect of harming individual competitors – could be plausibly justified as innovations that improved Google’s product and the experience of its users. It therefore has chosen to close the investigation.
The FTC’s updated note goes on to state that Google has “abided” to the commitments it made to the FTC at the time of the decision. The agency says that it “raised concerns” about “other Google practices,” which appear to align with the documentary record, such as we have it.
I’ll leave the final summing of the above to the lawyers, but it is also interesting to note the impact that transparency has. This debate, mostly concluded, is now back in the mix. Given the continued importance of search capabilities, even as search itself becomes increasingly diverse, and siloed in some ways, how we determine what is fair from providers is a topic that matters.