WASHINGTON – Fresh off the news that Europe is formally investigating Google, a Silicon Valley antitrust expert today laid out the hypothetical case against Google that might play out should U.S. regulators decide to get involved.
Gary Reback, an attorney with Carr & Ferrell and a prominent figure in the antitrust trials involving Microsoft, told attendees at Consumer Watchdog's Future of Online Consumer Protections conference here that the European case, built off complaints by a comparison shopping engine, could demonstrate that Google has improperly penalized specialty search engines in its quest to maintain its leading search engine market share. The refrain is a familiar one among Google critics: that Google's Universal Search unfairly promotes its own content over that of competitors.
In a new twist, Reback discussed the results of a study he concluded on over 40,000 shopping-related search queries. Nearly all of those queries displayed Google's shopping pages as either the first or third result; curiously, not a single query resulted in a Google Web page showing up in the second spot.
"As the dominant supplier of search, are they running something that's neutral? Or are they providing manipulated results for their own benefit?" Reback wondered. In the past Google has strongly denied any suggestion that employees pick and choose winners within search results, but it does make frequent changes to the algorithm that powers those results for various reasons, usually to combat what it considers spam.
Foundem, a price-comparison search engine based in the U.K., is leading the charge against Google in Europe. It has complained that Google made changes to its algorithm that unfairly penalized the site, knocking it way down Google's rankings until it was eventually restored after the company protested the decision.
Reback also addressed a recurring question about how exactly a regulated Google would continue to provide relevant search results if it had to disclose its algorithm as a result of a successful prosecution. Microsoft was required to disclose its source code to a technical committee in order to evaluate whether or not it was playing by the rules, and Reback said Google could be forced to do something similar that would allow regulators to verify it was operating properly without having to air the algorithm in public, which would quickly result in a spam-filled search engine.
Like many of the panelists at Consumer Watchdog's conference–including the organizers themselves–Reback has been a noted critic of Google for several years. He is a member of the Open Book Alliance, which opposes Google's proposed settlement with authors and publishers over publishing rights to certain out-of-print but copyright-protected books.