Net Neutrality Coiner Concerned About Google Search

Columbia Law professor Tim Wu says he thinks the FTC or Justice Department or both should be looking anew at Google and new evidence that it has been favoring its own content in local search.

That came in a Senate Antitrust Subcommittee hearing April 5 on unfair methods of competition.

The Federal Trade Commission closed an investigation into Google search in 2013. Wu agreed with that decision but based on new evidence has changed his view of the potential consumer harm.

Wu said one of the challenges of the FTC's Google investigation was that there was no strong evidence at the time of consumer harm. Google made what Wu said at the time was a convincing argument that its universal search was preferred by consumers and better overall and that was one of the reasons the investigation was closed.

He said that in subsequent research, he found that some of what Google was doing, particularly in local search, "in certain areas Google is manipulating its search in an anti-competitive way and I think that evidence makes a difference and I think Google is, at this point, in a different position. I think there is stronger evidence of consumer harm now."

Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.), who raised the issue of Google and search, said that if Google is giving preference to its own properties, and if in fact there is consumer harm that was not apparent to Wu before, shouldn't that be a basis for enforcement action under Sec. 5 authority over unfair methods of competition.

Wu, who coined the term net neutrality, said that it was a complicated case, but added: "I think the FTC should be looking at this, or the Justice Department, or both."

Stanford Law professor A. Douglas Melamed, who was also testifying, did not agree. He said that "surely the fact that consumers would prefer a slightly different product cannot be the basis for government intervention."

That was a reference to Blumenthal's citing of a study by Wu and a colleague about favoring local search that found that web surfers much preferred an organic search experience to one managed, or "biased" as Blumenthal termed it, by Google. Google has argued that its search is consumer friendly and consumer-preferred.

Blumenthal said it was not just consumers preferring or wanting one service over another, but Google in effect denying free choice, though he conceded they were discussing an issue on which did not yet have all the facts.

John Eggerton

Contributing editor John Eggerton has been an editor and/or writer on media regulation, legislation and policy for over four decades, including covering the FCC, FTC, Congress, the major media trade associations, and the federal courts. In addition to Multichannel News and Broadcasting + Cable, his work has appeared in Radio World, TV Technology, TV Fax, This Week in Consumer Electronics, Variety and the Encyclopedia Britannica.