ANYONE feeling déjà vu over the Federal Trade Commission’s Google investigation? A company with a dominant technology platform, in this case, search, was accused of exploiting its position to squash competitors.
In the 1990s, Microsoft was investigated for using its monopoly with Windows to expand its Web browser business. The ensuing trial and consent decree forced the company to change its ways.
On Thursday, the FTC announced a toothless settlement with Google after investigating allegations of anti-competitive practices in search and patents.
Competitors said Google promoted advertisers’ search results over the organic results in the middle of the page, which users expect to display the most commonly clicked websites. Google has a clear competitive advantage with 67 percent of search traffic, which also means it can set the rules for online advertisers.
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The FTC for the most part ignored the complaints of search bias in its settlement. It failed to judge Google by the same standards in Microsoft’s antitrust case.
What’s good for the goose is good for the gander.
The unequal application of antitrust law undermines the confidence of innovators and investors. Most important, consumers have been denied access to a fair marketplace for the most competitive businesses and services via Google’s search engine.
Incoming state Attorney General Bob Ferguson should open an investigation into Google’s practices. Attorneys general in Texas, New York, Ohio, California and Oklahoma have reportedly launched inquiries.
The European Union, which fined Microsoft more than $1 billion for abusing its dominant market position, then reopened its investigation into Microsoft last year, will hopefully bring some discipline to Google shortly. Washington’s congressional delegation should ask the FTC some sharp questions.
The U.S. Department of Justice should launch an investigation into Google, as it did with Microsoft in the 1990s. That investigation led to a public trial that put Bill Gates on the witness stand, exposed the inner workings of the company and led to a judge ordering the breakup of Microsoft. While the company ultimately wasn’t forced to split up, the trial and settlement forced Microsoft to change how it treated competitors. (Innovation by those competitors also helped.)
Antitrust law must be applied equally and fairly to protect the public.