The U.S. Department of Justice should
launch a broad antitrust investigation into Google’s search and
advertising practices and consider a wide array of penalties, including
possibly breaking the company up, a consumer group said Wednesday.
Consumer Watchdog, along with a mobile entrepreneur and two lawyers
representing Google rivals, all called on the DOJ to initiate an
antitrust investigation focusing on a number of issues, including
Google’s marriage of search results to advertising and its book search
“The time has clearly come for Justice to launch a major, broad
antitrust investigation against Google, and we think all remedies should
be on the table, including, we think, the possible breakup of the
Internet giant,” said John Simpson, a consumer advocate with Consumer
Watchdog. The 25-year-old organization focuses on a number of consumer
issues, including health care, insurance and energy, but the group’s
move into tech issues in recent years has largely focused on criticisms
Watchdog sent a letter to the DOJ Wednesday asking that the agency
investigate Google for antitrust violations. “For most Americans —
indeed, for most people in the world — Google is the gateway to the
Internet,” the letter said. “How it tweaks its proprietary search
algorithms can ensure a business’ success or doom it to failure.”
A DOJ spokeswoman declined to comment on Consumer Watchdog’s request.
Simpson and other speakers criticized several of Google’s business
Google has manipulated search and advertisement placement results to
shut out potential competitors who counted on Google results to drive
traffic to their sites, said Joseph Bial, a lawyer at Cadwalader,
Wickersham & Taft who represents myTriggers.com and TradeComet.com.
Both companies have filed antitrust lawsuits against Google alleging
that the search giant shut out their attempts to advertise on
Google’s dominance in search and search-based advertising means that
online and mobile advertisers have little choice but to do business with
them, added Simon Buckingham, the New York-based founder of
Ringtones.com and Appitalism. The close ties between Google’s search
results and search-based advertising means the “neutrality of the search
results are compromised,” he said.
Adam Kovacevich, senior manager for global communications and public
affairs at Google, discounted the criticisms, saying Consumer Watchdog
has been “relentlessly negative” about Google. The group recently questioned
the reasons why Google stopped censoring search results in China
criticized Google’s privacy Dashboard as inadequate, Kovacevich
“We totally understand that with size and success comes scrutiny,” he
added. “Although given their track record, even if we broke Google in
half tomorrow, Consumer Watchdog would probably insist that we split
halves into quarters.”
While Simpson and other participants in the press conference
criticized Google’s search results and ad delivery system as being
opaque, Kovacevich said Google has worked hard to be open with
publishers and users.
“Ultimately, criticizing Google for its ’secret formula’ is an easy
claim to make, but it just isn’t true,” Matt Cutts, principal engineer
for Google’s search quality team, wrote
in a blog post in March. “Google has worked day after day for years
to be open, to educate publishers about how we rank sites, and to
answer questions from both publishers and our users. So if that’s how
people choose to define ’secret,’ then ours must be the worst kept
secret in the world of search.”
Google also continues to try to improve its search results,
An attendee of the Consumer Watchdog press conference also questioned
the need for an antitrust investigation. Ed Black, president and CEO of
the Computer and Communications Industry Association, a trade group
counting Google as a member, suggested many calls for antitrust scrutiny
of Google were coming from the company’s rivals.
“Isn’t part of the issue that Google is, in fact, a very strong
competitor and disrupter of several markets with dominant players?”
Black said. “A lot of the opposition and attacks on Google are really
being fronted by people who don’t like, for the first time, that they
have a company competing against them.”
There seems to be little evidence that Google is violating antitrust
laws, Black added. “There is not a record of proven misconduct here at
all,” he said.
But Simpson and Gary Reback, an antitrust lawyer and founder of the
Google Books settlement opponent the Open Book Alliance, suggested
enough complaints about Google exist to warrant an investigation.
Protecting consumers is “what we pay Justice for,” Simpson said.
“Is there a case here?” Reback added. “How would we know without
Asked how the DOJ could break up Google, Simpson suggested the agency
could separate its search function from its advertising business,
although he didn’t explain how Google would recover the costs of
providing search. The DOJ could also order Google to spin off its Gmail
and Buzz product lines and YouTube, he said.