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Thursday, February 25, 2010

Europhobic Response to Google Antitrust Issues - Not Productive

The latest bubblings of legal action against Google for anticompetitive behavior are, many believe, just the tip of the iceberg.

One thing that surprised me about some people's reactions to this, at least in the US, was the assumption that it was all about European companies and regulators being, well, European about things: envious, bureaucratic, anti-American, etc.

But that misses the point by a mile. The key point of comparison in the broader discussion is always Microsoft. And the biggest legal hit to Microsoft's empire came in the United States.

This week, some European companies are disgruntled with Google and some Italians are throwing a scare into Google execs by literally "jailing" them (albeit with suspended sentences) around some privacy legislation.

But when the real questions start being asked about anticompetitive behavior, they'll be asked on home turf, as they were of Microsoft. And those questions, mind you, require a titan like Bill Gates to stand there as a mere mortal and admit to the specific discussions and specific strategies used to attempt to push key competitors (like Netscape) out of business. That's the power of the US legal system, and don't think it won't happen someday with Google.

Chortling about hidebound Europeans might be comforting in North American digital circles, but that analysis is neither fair, productive, nor predictive of future outcomes. Google, inevitably, will be called on the carpet for many potential violations of antitrust. Not by the "FTC" for "misleading" disclosure of paid search links (sorry Danny, that's a dead issue). But - potentially - for doing exactly what Page and Brin warned search engines could do, in their legendary paper "The Anatomy of a Large Scale ...". Using their position as a monopolist to manipulate which major competitors get to show up, where, and how, in the mix of search results. And boosting their own properties relentlessly when others should be findable. Just for starters.

This being said, I'm never a fan of nuisance lawsuits and petty nitpicking. Time will tell if Google is inside the law in many different areas. I'll be back in a bit with some pro-Yelp thoughts, as they fight off silly conspiracy theories about "extortion" of small businesses. (Necessarily speculative, as court cases must be decided in court, where they belong.)

Posted by Andrew Goodman




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