Sen. Herb Kohl (D-Wis.), head of the Senate Judiciary Subcommittee on Antitrust, Competition Policy and Consumer Rights, has announced that Google will face antitrust scrutiny due to its growing online dominance. Specifically, the antitrust subcommittee will look at whether Google has treated competing websites unfairly in terms of search rankings or ability to buy search ads.
Here’s an excerpt from the “Competition in Online Markets/Internet Search Issues” section of Kohl’s agenda (the bolded section was highlighted in yellow in an e-mail version of the release they sent out yesterday):
“Access to the wealth of information and e-commerce on the Internet is essential for consumers and business alike. As the Internet continues to grow in importance to the national economy, businesses and consumers, the Subcommittee will strive to ensure that this sector remains competitive, that Internet search is fair to its users and customers, advertisers have sufficient choices, and that consumers’ privacy is guarded. In recent years, the dominance over Internet search of the world’s largest search engine, Google, has increased and Google has increasingly sought to acquire e-commerce sites in myriad businesses. In this regard, we will closely examine allegations raised by e-commerce websites that compete with Google that they are being treated unfairly in search ranking, and in their ability to purchase search advertising. We also will continue to closely examine the impact of further acquisitions in this sector.”
Is this the real reason? Not according to John Ellis of Business Insider:
“This is a classic fund-raising ploy. You let it be known that you are going to hold hearings into ‘issues’ relating to XYZ company’s ‘anti-trust’ position. You say that the hearings will be coming in the months ahead. Then you fund-raise from all concerned; the companies being investigated and those that seek to dethrone them. When I covered politics in Massachusetts, they used to call this ‘the utility ball’ (because there it was all about shaking down the gas and electric and telephone companies.)”
This is a similar to Texas AG Gregg Abbott, likely motivated by political ambitions, who has demanded Google’s secret formula for AdWords rates and ranking sites.
Here’s the thing. This battle over search rankings and advertising has been fought and lost in court before. Judges have agreed with Google that Google’s search results are an opinion. Opinions are protected under the First Amendment, just as Google has the right to accept or deny any advertising.
UPDATE: Utah Sen. Mike Lee (R-Utah) is also getting in the action. Lee sent a letter to Kohl agreeing “vigorous antitrust oversight and enforcement in this area” is needed. “The powerful position Google occupies in the general search arena creates myriad opportunities for anticompetitive behavior.”