Newly revealed memos show that government investigators saw red flags in Google’s behavior nearly a decade ago.
Could the downside of Google’s influence over online advertising and digital information been avoided if the government had put more guardrails on areas of behavior that some people at the F.T.C. had found worrisome nearly a decade ago?
Let me walk through three points or questions I have from this trove of Google documents:
And based on interviews and emails from executives at Google and other companies, government staffers found that Google promoted its own products — and in some cases demoted identical online information from competitors — because it helped Google’s bottom line. Again, that’s a behavior at the heart of one of the state lawsuits.
I wondered what might have been if Uncle Sam had made different choices nearly a decade ago — and many times before and since.
What if in 2012 the F.T.C. economists hadn’t downplayed the possibility that Google could use money and coercion to lock in its power on smartphones? Would a different choice by the agency have changed the direction of the smartphone industry and the internet? Would you be reading this newsletter on your Amazon or Mozilla phone, and would that be an improvement?
Nearly a decade ago, some members of the F.T.C. staff were disturbed to find that Google pulled information from websites including Amazon, TripAdvisor and Yelp — even when those companies demanded it stop — to make its own web search results more compelling. The staff wrote that the behavior signaled to everyone on the internet that Google could do whatever it liked.
Those choices led to the internet we have today. It’s one in which Google has made itself the first and last stop for many internet searches. In an alternate history, maybe we’d have more and better online options.
Wishing for a different internet doesn’t mean the government should twist the law to make it happen.
The Politico documents show that people at the F.T.C. in 2012 believed that the law wasn’t on the government’s side in some cases, or that what Google was doing might have squashed rivals but also made search results and the web better for us. The same might be true today.
The F.T.C. staff members also aren’t soothsayers who could have predicted how online competition would turn out.
With the benefit of hindsight, though, it is hard not to wonder how the internet economy might be different and less dominated by giants today if the government had sought to change Google’s business practices then.
Source: New York Times