Critics call on feds to squelch a Google monopoly

Microsoft and Consumer Watchdog advocate action to level the search playing field

With Google squarely in their sights, Microsoft and advocate group Consumer Watchdog have joined the chorus of voices calling on the government to take measures to prevent a search monopoly -- or to deal with the one that already exists.

The concerns set forth by Microsoft, Consumer Watchdog, and other observers go beyond whether Google gives unfair prominence in search rankings to paid advertisers. Critiques range from "A company such a Google could abuse its search dominance" to "Google is already abusing its search dominance" to push its other revenue-generating services -- such as maps, video, and shopping searches -- at the expense of competitors.

[ Also on InfoWorld.com: Google refutes criticism about Android fragmentation. | Stay up on tech news and reviews from your smartphone at infoworldmobile.com. ]

As reported by Ars Technica, Microsoft weighed in on the issue in comments sent to the FCC last week, responding to the group's inquiry about the Future of Media in a Digital Age. In its submission Microsoft doesn't mention Google specifically, except in footnotes, but the company does paint of grim picture of an Internet that lacks any effective competition in the area of search: "A dominant provider has the ability to push consumers to content that competes with an existing offering from a competitor and then 'shout over' the competitor simply by causing its search users to believe that its own content is the most popular or relevant."

Lo and behold, the Internet does seems to lack much in the way of effective search competition: According to Experian, Google accounted for 71.4 percent of the total searches in the United States in April. Its top three competitors, Yahoo, Bing, and Ask, made up 15 percent, 9.4 percent, and 2.2 percent of searches, respectively.

Whereas Microsoft skirts the issue of whether it believes Google has achieved dangerous monopoly status, Consumer Watchdog is quite explicit on its position, which it outlines in a newly released study being distributed to U.S. Justice Department and European Commission antitrust officials, titled "Traffic Report: How Google is Squeezing Out Competitors and Muscling Into New Markets."

The study paints a picture of Google that is, in fact, strikingly similar to Microsoft's description of a dominant provider that gives its own content preferential treatment over that of competitors.

The group says it studied Internet traffic data for more than 100 popular Web sites since 2007. Among its conclusions: "Since adopting Universal Search, which favors Google's properties with prominent listings in its results, traffic to Google's sites has soared at the expense of competitors. "

For example, the report says that "MapQuest, a unit of AOL, appears likely to soon be reduced from a dominant player in Web commerce to an also-ran, due in large part to the steps taken by Google to favor its own locator service."

Just as Microsoft is subtle in calling out Google as a monopoly, the company has a light-touch proposal to remedy the threat of an overly dominant search provider. Whereas Consumer Watchdog is obviously hankering for an antitrust investigation in the United States and the European Union, Microsoft is merely (and vaguely) asking for "transparency," which wouldn't necessarily mean sharing proprietary search algorithm details.

Rather, it would be a matter of pulling back the curtains a bit to "allow users and other actors in the online ecosystem to know whether a vertically integrated, dominant search engine is favoring its own content or that of preferred partners in natural or paid search results over competing, unaffiliated content."

"The goal," Microsoft's submission continues, "would be for users and the government to understand what factors are and are not influencing the dominant provider's search results and advertising placements and the extent to which the dominant provider makes judgments that could impede diversity in the future of media."

This story, "Critics call on feds to squelch a Google monopoly," was originally published at InfoWorld.com. Get the first word on what the important tech news really means with the InfoWorld Tech Watch blog.

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