ALMOST EXACTLY 4½ years after the U.S. government’s leading antitrust agency decided that Google had not unlawfully abused its position as the world’s No. 1 Internet search engine, the European Commission in Brussels has reached a contrary conclusion. After lengthy investigation, the commission ruled that Google had violated European antitrust law, and slapped the U.S.-based company with a $2.7 billion fine. This turn of events proves the United States and Europe have different approaches to fighting monopoly. And while the latter’s is certainly more satisfying to the Silicon Valley giant’s many critics, that does not necessarily make it superior, in terms of antitrust policy’s core purposes.
Obviously the whole matter has gotten caught up in European angst over the dominance that U.S. companies exercise in this crucial industry. But to the extent that there was a real issue, it was Google’s shopping tool, which affords privileged treatment to paid sponsors in responding to queries from consumers. Search “women’s ECCO shoes” on the German version of Google, for example, and up pop various offerings for Birkenstocks from a select group of vendors — accompanied by a note, in tiny type off to the side, indicating that “merchant links are sponsored.”
Google argues that this is not a case of Internet payola, but a search result that balances the consumer’s individual needs and preferences, based on the data the company possesses about him or her — and Google’s need to make enough revenue to stay in business crunching all that data. In fact, the firm insists, it wouldn’t be in its interest to do anything truly skewed by advertising dollars, because consumers would quickly catch on. The European Commission disagreed, in effect siding with comparison shopping sites that claimed Google unfairly shut them out — many of which had, in fact, already gone out of business in the time it took the commission to rule.
Whether the demise of any of them is specifically traceable to Google, however, is not so clear. Also unclear is the aggregate harm from Google’s practices to consumers, as opposed to the unlucky companies. Birkenstock-seekers may well prefer to see a Google-generated list of vendors first, instead of clicking around to other sites. Certainly Google’s disclosure of its sponsorship arrangements adds a small but nontrivial note of transparency. Those who aren’t happy anyway have other options. Indeed, the rise of comparison shopping on giants such as Amazon and eBay makes concerns that Google might exercise untrammeled power over e-commerce seem, well, a bit dated. (Amazon’s founder and chief executive, Jeffrey P. Bezos, owns The Post.) Who knows? In a few years we might be talking about how Facebook leveraged its 2 billion users to disrupt the whole space.
The immense size and power of all Internet giants are a legitimate focus for the antitrust authorities on both sides of the Atlantic. Brussels vs. Google, however, seems to be a case of punishment without crime.
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