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Did the U.S. government miss opportunities to rein in Google? Five months ago, I posed that question in this newsletter. Newly revealed documents suggest that the answer is yes.
On Tuesday, Politico published articles based on previously unseen internal memos from an Obama-era government investigation into whether Google abused its power to quash competition and hurt Americans. The Federal Trade Commission concluded in early 2013 that Google’s behavior didn’t break the law. However, the company agreed to change some of its business practices.
Reading the documents with the benefit of hindsight, I was struck that investigators saw red flags in Google’s behavior, but were divided over whether they should or could do anything about it. Currently, three antitrust lawsuits are pending against Google, and the government now cites some of the same warning signs the investigators saw as evidence of the company’s illegal monopoly power.
Could the downside of Google’s influence over online advertising and digital information been avoided if the government had put more guardrails on areas of behavior that some people at the F.T.C. had found worrisome nearly a decade ago?
Let me walk through three points or questions I have from this trove of Google documents:
The roots of current cases against Google:
Of the three antitrust lawsuits now pending against Google, I’ll focus on two: First, the Department of Justice says that Google used business deals with Apple and Android smartphone companies to cement its hold on our digital lives. And a group of U.S. state attorneys general claimed that Google hobbled online specialists in areas like home repair services and travel reviews.
The funny thing about the current government lawsuits is that much of the behavior is old news. Not everything. But a lot. That was clear before, but the F.T.C. documents made that undeniable. (The Wall Street Journal also got part of one of these documents in 2015.)
The Politico documents show fear within the F.T.C. in 2012 that Google would use its money and power to ensure that its search box had a prominent position on smartphones and expand its digital dominance. That’s essentially what the U.S. government (and the European Union) now say that Google did. Google has said the government’s claims have no merit.
And based on interviews and emails from executives at Google and other companies, government staffers found that Google promoted its own products — and in some cases demoted identical online information from competitors — because it helped Google’s bottom line. Again, that’s a behavior at the heart of one of the state lawsuits.
In a blog post, Google said the documents backed up the company’s view that its behavior most likely benefited consumers.
I wondered what might have been if Uncle Sam had made different choices nearly a decade ago — and many times before and since.
What if in 2012 the F.T.C. economists hadn’t downplayed the possibility that Google could use money and coercion to lock in its power on smartphones? Would a different choice by the agency have changed the direction of the smartphone industry and the internet? Would you be reading this newsletter on your Amazon or Mozilla phone, and would that be an improvement?
Nearly a decade ago, some members of the F.T.C. staff were disturbed to find that Google pulled information from websites including Amazon, TripAdvisor and Yelp — even when those companies demanded it stop — to make its own web search results more compelling. The staff wrote that the behavior signaled to everyone on the internet that Google could do whatever it liked.
What if the government had sought then to stop Google’s bullying? Similarly, what if the government had forced Google to open its search results to outsiders? Today, if you search for Niagara Falls hotels or a pediatrician nearby, Google mostly shows information it has collected, rather than listings from TripAdvisor and ZocDoc, which may be more helpful. U.S. government staff were concerned about that behavior, too.
Those choices led to the internet we have today. It’s one in which Google has made itself the first and last stop for many internet searches. In an alternate history, maybe we’d have more and better online options.
Is it pointless to play “what if”?
Wishing for a different internet doesn’t mean the government should twist the law to make it happen.
The Politico documents show that people at the F.T.C. in 2012 believed that the law wasn’t on the government’s side in some cases, or that what Google was doing might have squashed rivals but also made search results and the web better for us. The same might be true today.
The F.T.C. staff members also aren’t soothsayers who could have predicted how online competition would turn out.
With the benefit of hindsight, though, it is hard not to wonder how the internet economy might be different and less dominated by giants today if the government had sought to change Google’s business practices then.
Before we go …
A middle ground on Uber drivers’ contractor status: Uber and similar “gig economy” companies have fought efforts to make them treat their couriers as conventional employees. My colleague Adam Satariano writes that Uber retreated from a hard line stance in Britain after losing a major legal case and will provide drivers in the country a minimum wage, vacation pay and some other benefits.
What happens to virtual learning tech? My colleague Natasha Singer writes about the technologies for remote learning that might stick around when in-person education returns widely.
Wikipedia wants to get paid: Wired reported on Wikipedia trying to keep a free option for most of us and create a paid version for commercial users like Google.
Hugs to this
How did I not know about Squishmallows before now?! My colleague Taylor Lorenz dug into the brightly colored stuffed animal/pillow type things that people collect, display and hug.
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