Lesson From The Google Case: There Is No Such Thing As Antitrust Policy
“Don’t get Scroogled‘”
Seen that one yet? It’s a Microsoft Bing TV ad criticizing Google‘s search results for causing a kitchen fire. It’s cute, emblematic of the healthy way companies compete and mock one another.
There’s another not-so-great way to do business, though.
After a nearly two-year investigation, it’s all but official that the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) will conclude that Google did not violate the antitrust laws. That is, Google doesn’t create consumer harm or inappropriately favor its own products, or “tweak” stuff.
Google’s not exactly being left alone, though: As Politico puts it, the FTC will “let” Google make “voluntary” changes.
Google will agree to alter how it presents bits of info from review sites like Yelp (a criticized practice it was changing in some areas already), and will make it contractually easier to advertise across other search engines like, well, Bing. Which is weird because Microsoft already had a monopoly or something.
Perhaps more telling is that Google will waive some ability to secure injunctions against competitors for using certain “standard-essential patents” it holds, a looming issue with implications for the entire tech sector apart from this case.
Still, “The buzzards are circling.” Expect furious Google opponents to forum-shop, particularly to press the Department of Justice, down the road from the FTC, for more concessions. The European Union and state attorneys general haven’t yet let up on Google either.
Many against one, these parties will escalate the search wars as the desktop web goes ever mobile and cloud based. Count on it; a recent New York Times piece described the latest phase of the small-screen browser wars, while a recent Economist cover story sensationalizes the “Game of Thrones” among Google, Facebook, Apple and Amazon.
Competitive harm of rivals in the pursuit of customer service and profit is no a crime, though; it’s the whole idea of the U.S.A., in a sense. It’s how to benefit your customers, even if you’re Google.
And the premises of the attacks on Google are wanting. Search engines, web sites and web apps are made out of ones and zeros; And the Internet remains what it always was, crawlable and indexable by rival commercial and non-commercial search engines and those yet to be created.
It’s more than obvious that dissatisfied customers with their kitchens on fire can rebel. They might even move their index finger to click over to Bing or choose among dozens of other search engines. The closer FTC got to actually acting, the more evident this became, it seems.
The objections still being pursued are revolts against the objective reality that people like Google.
Antitrust claims to deal with consumer harm and compulsion. But note how force always proceeds in one direction only.
For there ever to be such a thing as actual “antitrust,” rationally defined, it would need to break up coercive monopoly power. Instead the activity that goes by the name antitrust is itself coercive monopoly power of the most sweeping nature possible. Antitrust consolidates government power over all productive sectors.
A finding against Google would have meant that Washington would, in effect, have needed to justify coming up with some way to force people to directly or indirectly disfavor Google. Antitrust never stops consumers directly by aiming force squarely against them by banning their use of something; that would too blatantly reveal its true nature as corporate welfare.
Instead the antitrust industry extracts concessions, promises and the like with pro-consumer, bureau-as-savior verbiage while in reality shoring up rivals and high-fiving the antitrust bar, probably over beers. Then it waits until the next target comes along.
Google has been the flavor of the year. But we’ve seen numerous tech industry antitrust investigations like that into AT&T‘s attempted merger with T- Mobile, plus delays of Comcast and NBC Universal and the SiriusXM merger with concessions, and more. Apple is vulnerable.v The next big intellectual impetus for more anti-consumer, national-government-sponsored compulsory intervention in telecommuncations and the Internet will likely derive from professor Susan Crawford’s upcoming book Captive Audience: The Telecom Industry and Monopoly Power in the New Gilded Age.