Did Google’s Promise to ‘Do No Evil’ Persuade the FTC to Do Nothing About Its Search Bias?

Has the Federal Trade Commission been seduced by Google’s famous promise to “do no evil"? That’s the question a lot of critics are asking in the wake of the Internet search giant’s antitrust settlement with the FTC last week

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Has the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) been seduced by Google’s famous promise to “do no evil”? That’s the question a lot of critics are asking in the wake of the Internet search giant’s antitrust settlement with the FTC last week. The problem, critics say, isn’t simply that Google got off lightly; it’s that the FTC allowed Google to set the terms — both in defining whether the company’s behavior was harmful and in setting the terms of its punishment.

“For critics of Google,” NYU Information Law Institute fellow Nathan Newman writes on the Huffington Post, “the FTC decision is not bad news because we disagree with the results, but bad news because it reflects an enforcement agency failing to even ask the right questions.”

(MORE: What Google’s FTC Deal Means for the Patent Wars)

One of the central questions in the FTC’s antitrust investigation was how exactly to determine whether Google’s dominance in the search-engine business has caused harm — and to whom. Critics suggest that the FTC basically punted on this question, allowing Google to frame the terms of the question in a way that made it look good. As Edward Wyatt notes in the New York Times:

Instead of considering harm to people who come to Google to search for information, Google’s competitors and their supporters say that the government should have been looking at whether Google’s actions harmed its real customers — the companies that pay billions of dollars each year to advertise on Google’s site.

There’s no question that Google skews its search results to benefit companies and services it has a stake in, or that have paid money for the privilege. If you type a location into Google, for example, your first result will be Google Maps. There’s a certain convenience to this, but there is a downside as well: by boosting its own map service, Google has given itself a giant leg up over competitors like MapQuest — remember them?

While in the short term consumers benefit from the convenience of getting an instant map in their search results, there could be harm in the long term if Google is able to use its dominance in the search-engine world to wipe out competitors in other areas. When a company doesn’t have competitors, after all, there’s much less incentive to innovate — and consumers as well as Google’s competitors could suffer. That’s why we have antitrust laws in the first place.

(MORE: Can Electronic Cigarettes Challenge Big Tobacco?)

But the FTC not only bought the argument that “Google likely benefited consumers by prominently displaying its vertical content on its search results page,” it also bought the argument that this was the correct way to weigh whether or not harm is being done.

Along with faulting the FTC for the way it dealt with (or, rather, didn’t deal with) the issue of “search bias,” critics are also charging regulators with putting far too much faith in Google’s willingness to fairly regulate itself.

Much like Microsoft before it, Joel West of Claremont Colleges writes on Seeking Alpha, Google has pushed “for self-regulation of the ‘trust us’ variety.” And that’s essentially what it got from the government, which basically took Google’s word that it would allow companies like Yelp the ability to block Google’s use of their data, and that it would lift restrictions on ad data.

As West notes, “Google’s mantra of ‘do no evil’ seems to have convinced many that it’s fundamentally trustworthy.” Of course, West points out, “anyone who knows Google knows that it is no more ‘pure of heart’ than Microsoft was in the 1990s or IBM in the 1970s.”

(MORE: Google’s Attack on Apple Is Good News for Apple)

On Gizmodo, longtime Google critic Scott Cleland is even more scathing, offering a laundry list of complaints that have convinced him that Google can’t be trusted:

Why does the FTC believe that they can trust Google to faithfully self-enforce: when Google violated the FTC’s Google-Buzz enforceable privacy-consent decree in just eight months with the Google Safari hack; and when Google badly hoodwinked the FTC with voluntary promises to prematurely shut down its Google Street View wi-fi investigation, when the FCC’s investigation subsequently concluded that Google systematically misrepresented its Street View wi-fi actions to the public and the FTC, and “deliberately impeded and delayed” the FCC’s investigation? …

Why does Google warrant a special self-enforcement standard, when Google owns the single worst antitrust and privacy record of any major U.S. corporation; has well-established track records of misrepresentation and obstruction of justice; and owns an unabashed culture of unaccountability?

While the FTC has closed its case, these issues aren’t going to go away anytime soon. The E.U. is still weighing a case against Google, and, in the U.S., some state attorneys general have also been talking about taking action. We’ll have to see if the critics find a more receptive audience with them than they did at the FTC.

13 comments
PeterStrohm
PeterStrohm

All I can I say that this is an FUD article commissioned by Microsoft and its cronies, probably through Burson-Marsteller PR firm. 

 - FTC doesn't protect Google's competitor it protects competition.

- FTC doesn't have a case against Google about search bias hurting its competitor.

- People have choices if they don't like Google services, its one click away. Unlike Microsoft days where its hard and expensive to get into the desktop OS  to compete with Windows. Moreover Microsoft bullies OEMs trying to offer alternative OS.

- Scott Cleland is a paid Google-attacker by Microsoft so all its says is biased to its employer.


ThomasSnertKing
ThomasSnertKing

IMHO, we should have an article over whether trust busting is a misguided model rather than an article on how not properly implementing said flawed model is bad.

trust busting = promote commercial competition, then punish the winner.

JamieDodd
JamieDodd

What a load of bull this is, I'm afraid if you don't like google maps being the first search result for locations then I strongly recommend NOT using google.

That is like moaning at nike for putting their sweaters by the door when you walk into a nike store, their house, their rules.


Jrock
Jrock

The open market is prevailing.  With Apple Maps, Siri, and other new technologies coming of age, Google will continue to have to adapt to better serve consumers...or die.  With the rapid growth of mobile search, and Apple's tremendous installation base of devises, at this point in time, while Google has tremendous market share, it's never been more under attack than it is today by the likes of deep pocketed competitors like Apple and Microsoft.  

SilentM
SilentM

Real customers of Google are the advertisers rather than those who search?  So then FCC should also look out for the interest of advertisers rather than viewers, FAA should look out for the interest of Airlines rather than flying public....  

luigi
luigi

Google *is* a fundamentally different company from IBM and Microsoft at any time in their histories. We may wonder whether it will stay this way (and hope it will), but if it doesn't we can worry about it later.

savpr
savpr like.author.displayName 1 Like

Google is the best thing that ever happened to the internet, hands down. They are the net.

ukjaybrat
ukjaybrat like.author.displayName like.author.displayName 2 Like

if i search google for a location. i want a google map. not a mapquest map. if i wanted a mapquest map, i'd go to mapquest. It is as simple as that. 

"...there could be harm in the long term if Google is able to use its dominance in the search engine world to wipe out competitors in other areas. When a company doesn’t have competitors, after all, there’s a lot less of an incentive to innovate – and consumers as well as Google’s competitors could suffer. That’s why we have antitrust laws in the first place."

NO.  This is 100% absolutely FALSE. You are implying that Google is, in any way, wiping out its competitors. Last i checked, Yahoo, Bing and mapquest all still exist. Correct? so i can still go to those websites whenever i want? correct? Then the competition has not been wiped out. i can go use them whenever i want. I don't want to because Google is the best. Anti-competitive law exists to protect the consumer, NOT THE COMPETITOR. So just because Google has ~70% market share in search does not mean they are wiping out their competition. It means their competition sucks and 70% of the world knows it.

JamieDodd
JamieDodd

@ukjaybrat indeed. These morons have a choice if they want to use google or not....

It's not as if google are forcing them to go on their site! :D 


And I fully agree, their competition sucks

xsgbloom
xsgbloom

It seems you have a fundamental misunderstanding of Google's mantra, which is not "Do no evil". Knowing this makes your opinion kind of hard to read.