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Google's Response To Antitrust Accusations


This month in All Tech Considered, why everyone wants to break up big tech.


CORNISH: Google is hands-down the top destination for searching on the Internet and has been for years, which means a company's success can depend on where it pops up in search results. This is one reason why lawmakers and regulators are asking whether Google has too much power. NPR tech correspondent Shannon Bond is here to explain. Welcome.


CORNISH: We should disclose right now Google is among NPR's financial supporters. Shannon, I want to talk to you about your reporting because you've actually been speaking with some of the companies that take issue with the search results. What are their concerns?

BOND: Yeah. So I'll give you an example. There's a company called Basecamp, and they sell software. And they say if you Google their name, you may, in search results, not actually see them as the top result. You might see some ads for their competitors.

And so Basecamp says, look; in order to appear at the top of our own search results on our own name, we actually had to buy ads. In fact, they bought an ad that said, we don't want to buy this ad. And they felt like they had to do it in order to be able to be visible to their customers.

So I spoke to Jason Fried, Basecamp's CEO, over Skype, and here's what he had to say about Google.

JASON FRIED: Now that they own the market, they're using that market power to force brands, especially small businesses, to have to pay up to be found. And I find that to be just totally unfair. And it shouldn't be that way. And I'm glad that attention's being brought to that topic.

BOND: Yeah. And when he says market power, I mean, remember, Audie; Google makes billions of dollars every year selling ads in search results. And those top results are where people are going to click. So this really matters to a company like Basecamp.

CORNISH: Is this just public griping, or are they doing more?

BOND: Well, Basecamp is complaining in public. They've taken to Twitter about this. They say they're not going to pursue any further action. But Google has faced lawsuits about this. There's the company Edible Arrangements. You probably know them. They make fruit baskets and sell chocolate-dipped strawberries. They've actually filed a federal lawsuit over this exact issue about rival ads.

But now there is actually a new outlet for companies that have grievances against Google. There's a bunch of investigations that are going on into the company and its power. So we see the Justice Department looking at this. We see a group of attorneys general. And we see Congress holding hearings. And fundamentally, you know, these investigations show us that the attitudes toward tech's power are really changing. That's what antitrust lawyers and experts that I've been talking to say. And that gives more ears - more receptive ears - for companies like Basecamp and other complainers.

CORNISH: So you have this new wave of scrutiny. How is Google responding?

BOND: So they say on this specific issue of these rival ads and search results, you know, that's something they say is just standard practice in online advertising. Other search engines sell those kinds of ads. And they say, look; you know, a company can buy ads against its competitors or buy its own keyword. And they also point to a 2013 result of an investigation by the Federal Trade Commission that found Google didn't violate any antitrust or competition laws in how it displays search results. And more specifically about the recent investigations, the company says it engages in robust and fair competition and will work with regulators.

But they have come under pressure elsewhere. I mean, we see in Europe they think this is a really big deal. The EU has fined Google $9 billion in total in the past few years over these things of how they treat competitors and other companies.

CORNISH: So that's the EU. What's the next step in all this here?

BOND: Well, if the Justice Department or the state attorneys general feel their case is strong enough, they could take Google to court and, you know, try to force some changes. That's probably not going to happen anytime soon. We're at the early stages of these investigations, and we're heading into an election year next year, which could change things up.

Ultimately, whether they decide to bring those cases will depend on how they want to interpret antitrust law. And antitrust experts I spoke to said, look; you know, it's not illegal to be unfair. You know, there isn't a duty to be fair to your competitors or to your clients. And so they'd have to show some kind of concrete harm to consumers. Google's critics say there is concrete harm that, you know, they may not be showing the best search results. So the question is are you seeing the best results from anywhere on the Web when you search for something, or are you seeing results that benefit Google itself?

CORNISH: That's NPR's Shannon Bond. Shannon, thanks for explaining it.

BOND: Thank you.


Shannon Bond is a business correspondent at NPR, covering technology and how Silicon Valley's biggest companies are transforming how we live, work and communicate.
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