Is Google Risking Anti-Trust Deliberately?


Clint Boulton examines an intriguing theory – that Google is deliberately provoking anti-trust investigation, in order to trap Facebook

There’s little question now that Google has stepped into it big time with regard to Search Plus Your World, the feature that personalises search by incorporating Google+ posts and photos in users’ search results.

Users who are signed in are officially sheep to Google’s supposed well-meaning shepherd, as the company guides users to a wonderful, walled garden where it can serve them more ads.

Sinister plot?

There’s no question there are great efficiencies, along with amusing time wasting, to be gained by using Google+. There’s also no question that Facebook and Twitter are left out of Search Plus Your World as it currently exists.

Twitter cares greatly, and so does the Electronic Privacy Information Center, which on 12 January filed a formal complaint that the personal search feature both threatens user privacy and favours Google content over that of its rivals. Facebook doesn’t care, or is just feigning as much? Who can say when Zuck and Co. remain quiet on the matter in Palo Alto?

Perhaps Facebook should care, greatly. TechCrunch’s Eric Eldon has an interesting theory, which in my mind would make the Don’t Be Evil flag-waving Google an evil genius. It’s that Google rolled out this feature to bring Justice Department and Federal Trade Commission scrutiny to search and social Web services, with a mind to getting regulators to look at the two Web services through the same lens.

This could serve two purposes: 1) it could greatly widen the market outlook regulators have on [social media], which Congress has certainly considered separate from search to this point; 2) it could bring unwanted scrutiny to Facebook, which plans to go public this year. Scrutiny could slow Facebook’s momentum. Talk about cold and calculating in an evil way. If it were true.

A wolf in wolf’s clothing

It’s not as if Google is a wolf and Facebook isn’t. Though often pilloried by privacy advocates, Facebook has escaped the monopoly label even as its user base moves ever closer to 1 billion people. And yet, as Eldon pointed out, the social network has executed no shortage of transgressions against its developer ecosystem and partners:

Facebook has played favorites with developers on its platform and with partners throughout its history, without any serious legal scrutiny. The mechanisms it has had to do this over the years include: showing stories from favoured parties more often in users’ news feeds, under-enforcing any spammy transgressions, providing extra notifications and requests, providing early access to viral features, etc. Beneficiaries of Facebook’s favour over the years have included Causes, Spotify, arguably Zynga, large advertisers … and strategic investors/business partners like Microsoft.

So, what might Google claim should it win the ear of regulators? Google could point to Facebook’s partnership with Bing, where the social network only uses Bing’s third-party results. That’s not exactly a shining example of user choice, is it? Moreover, Facebook brings Bing’s individual Likes, which Google does not have access to. Eldon said Google would argue:

We are competing against a social networking company with clearly dominant market share, that has a strategic relationship with our largest existing competitor. That relationship specifically excludes our search engine from working effectively. This is no more fair than our integration of Google+ into search. If you’re going to regulate us, regulate them, too. Or leave us all alone.

Google could then help Facebook avoid scrutiny by asking for access to the same data Bing gets, then including it in its search engine results. If Facebook says no and regulators look at both companies, Google could dilute the new concern over its social search practices by roping Facebook into the regulatory meat grinder.

A decade ago, Microsoft had no one to haul in and make its joint federal whipping boy, nor any patsy. Google could tap Facebook as its patsy. Does Google fear Facebook enough to do this? I’m not sure. Maybe not now, but it fears the future.

But this all sounds like some strategic conspiracy of Dr. Evil proportions. I suspect here that Google may have erred more on the side of a mélange of arrogance and ignorance. It’s like the Google Buzz thing, only two years later and with monopolistic favoritism trading places with privacy excoriation as the culprit.

I just don’t buy the privacy concerns EPIC alleged relates to Search Plus Your World, because each person sees only content they already share with people on Google+, and they can opt out. It’s also HTTPS-encrypted.

However, I do think this opens up a new avenue of attack for the FTC, and unless Google makes some significant changes to incorporate more data sources from social rivals, it will feel the wrath of Uncle Sam.

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