Feisty antitrust litigator Gary Reback today called for President Obama to order Christine Varney, the head of the Department of Justice’s Antitrust Division, to launch a formal investigation of Google’s business practices, as Europe has just done.
“It is so troubling that we have to go to Europe to ask them to protect American consumers from manipulated search results, it’s so disconcerting,” said Reback, speaking at the Future of Online Consumer Protections conference in Washington DC.
Reback pointed out laudatory remarks President Obama made about Google at a Google-sponsored fund raising event during the 2008 presidential race. He suggested that President Obama could swiftly put to rest any hint of favoring Google. “All you need to do is pick up the telephone, call Christine Varney, and order her to do an investigation like the EU is doing.”
Taking the same head-on approach he did in spearheading federal antitrust sanctions imposed on Microsoft a decade ago, Reback backed up his rhetoric with substantive research. He disclosed a study of some 40,000 shopping related search queries. The study, he said, establishes a pattern of Google regularly promoting results from its own services over content from smaller, specialized search engines, such as Yelp and Foundem, that deliver comparative shopping results.
“Among just the comparative shopping search engines, Google puts itself in first place 98% of the time,” said Reback.
Reback cited an instance of Goolge ranking its own results for a query about a $2000 camera no. 1, while results for the same camera, priced lower, derived from rival search engines were ranked very low.
“As the dominant company is Google search fair to competitors? I think the answer to that is, ‘no,” said Reback. “The second question is, ‘Are these results in the best interest of consumers, when (Google) preferences their own stuff? Are consumers getting the best information? Are they getting the lower price? They’re not getting the lower price in the top positions because Google is preferencing its own properties.”
Google denies that any of its employees subjectively assign favorable results rankings to Google-controlled Web pages. The search giant has said that it does maintain a staff of several hundred employees who make continual adjustments to the mathematical algorithms that determines search rankings, primarily to combat spam.
In response to the European Commission formally launching an investigation to determine whether Google engages in illegal monopolistic practices, Susan Wojcicki, Google senior vice president of product management, penned this blog post.
“Given our success and the disruptive nature of our business, it’s entirely understandable that we’ve caused unease among other companies and caught the attention of regulators,” says Wojcicki. “The European Commission has announced that they will continue to review complaints about Google’s search and search advertising. We respect their process and will continue to work closely with the Commission to answer their questions.”
By Byron Acohido