Google antitrust – internet privacy


I’ve been quietly following the Google Antitrust issue for a while now. I have more than a passing interest both as a librarian and as someone who does a little SEO (search engine optimization) work. I’ve spoken to a few people about it. I’ve been keeping a careful eye on changes in how Google is doing things in terms of search and watching to see what other markets they are considering.

For folks who haven’t been following – the Federal Trade Commission is expected to launch an antitrust suit against Google based on the notion that consumers are hurt by the fact that Google skews search results to favor their own properties. (It sounds like they’ve started a soft launch already – or at least an investigation.)

Here’s a partial definition of the US Antitrust Law (from the Free Legal Dictionary):

Legislation enacted by the federal and various state governments to regulate trade and commerce by preventing unlawful restraints, price-fixing, and monopolies; to promote competition; and to encourage the production of quality goods and services at the lowest prices, with the primary goal of safeguarding public welfare by ensuring that consumer demands will be met by the manufacture and sale of goods at reasonable prices.

I wanted to get something in black and white for myself – because so many people when speaking about the issue seem to focus on consumers only. The definition above isn’t constrained in that way. In my mind however, the issue is that the consumer has become publisher. I think that’s part of the issue with Net Neutrality – the door should be open to everyone getting published and getting found. That dual citizenship (each person being consumer and creator of information online) makes antitrust, privacy and freedom of information legislation so sticky these days.

Folks who defend Google (such as Forbes) seem to focus on Internet citizens as searchers (or info consumers)…

The critics will be hard-pressed to show how consumers have been harmed by Google’s practices. The firm’s success seems tied to high quality products that users prefer over rival services. Importantly, barriers to entry are low: there’s nothing stopping new entrants from innovating and offering competing online services to match Google.

There are some organizations (such as FairSearch) who have opposing views – primarily because they are concerned for the rights of information creators…

We believe there’s a very compelling case that Google is abusing its dominant position in search to stifle competition and to extend its control over how information and commerce flows over the Internet.” [quote from a member]

Some folks (AdAge) folks on the revenue aspects (quote below is abbreviated)…

It’s unclear where exactly the FTC will focus its investigation, but it will seek comment from Google’s partners and competitors, who may raise several questions.

  1. Does Google’s ad auction operate fairly?
  2. Does Google favor its commerce affiliates?
  3. Does Google unfairly promote its own products in search?

When Google spoke about the FTC concerns in their blog (again abbreviated quote) they seem to focus on consumers…

Because of the many choices available to you, we work constantly on making search better, and will continue to follow the principles that have guided us from the beginning:

Do what’s best for the user.
Provide the most relevant answers as quickly as possible.
Label advertisements clearly.
Be transparent.
Loyalty, not lock-in.

More locally I’ve had conversations with Mike O’Connor, who did a podcast on online privacy about two months ago. In many ways I find his issues with Google more compelling because he’s looking at each user as a consumer and producer of info. Like Mike, I have noticed that while I’m able to do more, cooler things with the advent of the smartphone and iPad and great locations services… I’m also having to login with personal information more often to access these cool things. And sometimes I’ll pay the prices of my privacy and sometimes I won’t. Because while I’m comfortable being a creator of info – I want to be in control of the info I share. And quite frankly as a librarian, I want “pure results” not results that are tainted by my own search history. And as Mike points out – the ubiquity of Google means that they have access to more of my info than I might want. Now they have access because they do so many things well – but does that make it OK?

A recent survey from Consumers Union indicates that most people would like to rein in the information they unwittingly share…

Two-thirds of consumers believe the government should play a larger role in protecting their privacy on the Internet, according to a new poll from Consumers Union. Over 80 percent want the ability to opt out of Internet tracking from a single location.

That’s fuel for the Do-Not-Track Online Act of 2011 (S. 913), the Commercial Bill of Rights Act of 2011 (S.799) and the Data Security and Breach Notification Act (S. 1207) that the Senate Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee heard last week.

It will be interesting to see what happens with the antitrust suit – and the privacy bills and the future of Google and other online business and innovation.