Consumer Watchdog targets Google
Sunday, May 9, 2010
Too big to fail turned out to be wrong for banks and other corporations. But don't tell that to Google, which has quickly expanded into making smartphones, mapping streets of the world, streaming videos, connecting friends and selling digital books.
As Washington focuses more on Google's explosive growth, one thorn in the company's side is John Simpson, a 62-year-old veteran journalist with a deep suspicion of big business and a mission to break up the search giant.
Federal regulators have launched a handful of investigations of the Internet behemoth -- which dominates Web search -- to ensure it doesn't unfairly hurt competitors and consumers in its feeding frenzy of online businesses. So far, there hasn't been a full antitrust review of the variety that hobbled Microsoft, AT&T and Standard Oil.
But Simpson thinks that needs to happen.
He's no longer in the newspaper business, having lost two jobs during "restructurings," he says, scooping the air with curled fingers. Now Simpson works for a nonprofit group called Consumer Watchdog, where his singular focus is turning up the regulatory heat on Google. With its brand appeal, he says, Google is an ideal target.
He's turned the tables, digging up data on the giant that tracks every move its users make and collects information without their knowledge. Also, he said, the company unfairly uses its size to barrel into new businesses.
Google says that just because it's big doesn't mean it's bad. In other words, it hasn't used its dominance in search to edge out competitors unfairly in other businesses it enters. An example of that would be forcing cellphone makers who use Android software to use only Google's search engine and YouTube on those phones.
Nonetheless, the company has responded to antitrust finger-pointing by beefing up its staff in Washington. It also hired a lawyer focused on competition. He and others have given more than 100 talks to Hill staff members, regulators and journalists, saying that Google is just one click away from losing its 65 percent dominance in search.
"We're always happy to engage with groups that are interested in constructive solutions, but they seem more interested in grabbing headlines," said Adam Kovacevich, a spokesman for Google.
Simpson doesn't deny that this is a battle he takes personally.
"You become convinced something is wrong with corporate America if someone who has loyally worked for 30 years can be thrown out on his ass," Simpson said last week over a ham sandwich lunch at Jimmy T's diner on Capitol Hill.
From foes to friends
Yet true to Washington's playbook, he's found unexpected allies. That meant making friends with likely opponents: corporate giants such as Microsoft.