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5 things I learned watching the Google antitrust hearings

September 21, 2011 | by Andrew Kameka

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Google is very powerful and popular, so it’s understandable that the U.S. Senate Subcommittee on Antitrust, Competition Policy and Consumer Rights would want to have a chat with someone from the company. The antitrust subcommittee hosted Google Chairman Eric Schmidt and a trio of detractors to discuss if that power and popularity is being controlled unfairly.

Today’s hearing was about Google’s dominance in search, but, as expected, the conversation drifted into other areas, including Android. That’s not surprising considering Google’s reach. After watching today’s hearings, I looked back at some notes I took and walked away with 5 key impressions. Read them below or watch the full 3-hour long video.

Search is under Google’s influence, not it’s control

Antitrust law is too complicated (and boring) to discuss in detail, but there were a few interesting nuggets from today’s hearing. After multiple senators insinuated that Google is a monopoly because it controls “97 percent of mobile search,” antitrust attorney Susan Creighton defended Google by saying those claims are not accurate. Creighton testified that the 97 percent total doesn’t include mobile app search, the dominant way that people access the web online. (It includes only people who go to google.com, bing.com, etc. in their browser.) Unfortunately, Creighton didn’t offer a stat that does include app search.

Also, Google definitely has a massive influence on search, but it doesn’t control it. We’ve already seen that companies have replaced Google with Bing or Baidu search on phones and Google cannot force a carrier or OEM to use its search. (The Skyhook debacle is a problem for Google, but it’s not directly related to the issue of anticompetitive search.)

Google’s continued expansion will lead to more scrutiny

You know how today was about search dominance? Well, “search” must be a synonym for “everything” because that’s what drew attention today. Google was painted as not just a search engine but a gatekeeper to information and the web, which detractors believe could become a problem for people trying to compete with Google. For instance, have you tried Google Flights? It’s awesome and blows Expedia, Kayak, Orbitz, etc., out of the water. Would Google prominently featuring Flights on the results page for a “cheap flight tickets” search be an unfair advantage over the travel sites? It might be beneficial to consumers to find the best product, but the company’s leadership in search makes it a target for monopoly concerns.

That’s only going to get worse with the planned acquisition of Motorola. Yes, Android is open-source and available to a variety of manufacturers, but it’s also the sole operating system used by Motorola. Regulators will probably ask questions about how Google’s position as a supposed gatekeeper will influence the way it treats Motorola. Will Google step-in if Motorola wants to support Bing like previous phones have, or discourage the company from exploring Windows Phone 7? Every company that Google acquires – and there’s a lot of them – is just another feather in the cap of people who think Google has too much power.

Google may have done Yelp dirty

Surprisingly, the one thing that most seriously paints Google as being anti-competitive was treated as an afterthought at the subcommittee hearing. We’ve already covered how Google allegedly scraped content from Yelp and then downgraded its results in order to promote Google Places. This attention was really explored until the later half of the hearing, and I felt it should have been discussed more. If ever there were an example of Google doing something questionable to a competitor, this was it. Be sure to read Yelp CEO Jeremy Stoppelman’s claims. You can then read a rebuttal to these and other claims at the Google Anti-Competition page.

Mr. Senator, you need an aide who understands tech

The line of questioning in today’s hearing was indicative that the senators were not very educated on technology. I didn’t expect them to be pwning ROM’s and debating the merits of task killers, but I was surprised they didn’t do any research to understand what kind of power Google’s technology wields. Then again, perhaps that was the point of today’s hearings.

Senator Al Franken, D-Minn., saw Nielsen’s report that the most popular Android apps are made by Google, and assumed it was simply because they are preloaded on Android devices. It was a reference to previous antitrust target Microsoft, once accused of making Internet Explorer dominant by preloading it on Windows and taking actions to prevent other competitors.

The only problem with that implication is that the popular Google apps – GMail, Maps, YouTube – are already popular online and Google didn’t stand in the way of competitors releasing their apps on Android. Also worth noting: carriers have a big influence on what is preloaded. The reason a Google product like Maps is used more than VZ Navigator is not because Google stifles competition. It’s because Google built a superior product that is free and marketed. If Google were really anti-competitive, it would make carriers not include other GPS apps, forcefeed Google Voice down their throats, and tell Verizon to shutdown its carrier-controlled app store.

Other gems included Senator John Cornyn, R-Texas, asking if Google could design Android so that the Gmail app would be faster than the Yahoo! mail app. (To be fair, he was asking for clarity and that’s actually not a crazy question.) Schmidt informed the senator that was not possible because Yahoo! has access to the same source code as Google. It seemed a few in attendance, particularly Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah, had already formed their opinion and failed to grasp certain tech concepts. This could be a problem for Google in the event that an investigation is launched or more pressure is put on the company. How do you defend yourself against claims of unfair search practice if your accusers don’t understand the basic premises of web search?

It also doesn’t help that Schmidt all but admitted that Google is at least bordering on monopoly territory.

Al Franken still has his sense of humor

There was only one funny moment today, and it came courtesy of a Saturday Night Live alum. When Senator Franken struggled to illustrate a point and Schmidt tried to finish his sentence, the senator said “Tell me what I’m thinking.” It was as if Franken was a consumer searching for Google and Schmidt was autocomplete instantly telling him the way. I probably would have laughed harder if he said, “I’m feeling lucky.”

WATCH THE HEARING

The full video of today’s hearings and a full transcript are available at C-Span. See the recap to form your opinion of whether Google is an innovative company being blamed for expansion or an evil monopoly that deserves scrutiny.