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Should the Government Regulate Google? The NYT Seems to Think So

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In a somewhat surprising move, the New York Times has thrown its weight behind calls for a government inquiry into Google (s GOOG) and its search algorithm, by raising the prospect of a government investigation into and/or regulation of the company in an editorial published in the newspaper on Thursday. While the paper’s editors stop short of calling on the government to take specific action against the web giant, they state that “a case is building for some sort of oversight of the gatekeeper of the Internet.” The editorial comes as Google is facing increasing pressure from regulators in both the United States and Europe.

The NYT piece is short on evidence and long on rhetoric, however. The editorial says that Google is responsible for nearly two-thirds of Internet searches worldwide and adds — in a strangely folksy tone — that analysts “reckon that most Web sites rely on the search engine for half of their traffic.” The editorial goes on to talk about how Google engineers can break the business of a website with a single tweak of the company’s “supersecret algorithm,” by pushing the site down in its search rankings. This is even more important now, the editorial states, because Google has branched out into other services, where it has acquired “pecuniary incentives to favor its own over rivals.”

Although it doesn’t mention any specific cases, the NYT argument is almost certainly based (at least in part) on the claims of a little-known Google competitor called Foundem, which runs a comparison-shopping site and has complained — in a New York Times opinion piece, among other places — that its business has been adversely affected by Google’s alleged rigging of its algorithm. Gary Reback, the Silicon Valley lawyer who helped bring a federal antitrust case against Microsoft in the 1990s, has reportedly been making the rounds in Washington, D.C., introducing the founders of the company to various sources within the government. Foundem is also one of the three complainants who have raised antitrust issues regarding Google with the European Commission.

The New York Times editorial focuses specifically on the company’s “supersecret algorithm,” and the suggestion that it is stacking the deck in its own favor, something other prominent critics such as telecom consultant Scott Cleland have also raised. Even some relatively neutral technology observers have raised questions about the need for more transparency about its search algorithm. Chris Dixon, co-founder of and a seed investor in a number of startups, commented on the NYT editorial on Twitter by saying: “I don’t buy the ‘security thru obscurity’ argument. I don’t want govt regulation but think goog needs to open up algo more.”

Google’s vice-president of search product, Marissa Mayer, responded to some of the criticisms levelled against the company in an op-ed piece published in the Financial Times yesterday (her comments are also now on Google’s Public Policy blog), in which she says that search is complex, and that enforcing some arbitrary standard of “neutral” search results would make innovation impossible. Meanwhile, search expert Danny Sullivan said that there have never been any serious allegations of anti-competitive behavior lodged against Google, nor any sign that the search company rigs its algorithm. Sullivan also sarcastically suggested in his blog post that the New York Times should be investigated for its “supersecret” editorial policy.

Could Google be rigging its search results? Perhaps — but as Sullivan mentions in his blog post, if there were significant signs that Google was favoring its own properties, wouldn’t large competitors such as Microsoft (s MSFT) or Amazon (s AMZN) or Yahoo (s YHOO) have raised this issue before now, rather than a tiny handful of little-known European competitors? Maybe there is a case for government oversight of Google, but the New York Times has failed to make that case, and so have most of the others who have tried to do so to date.

Related content from GigaOM Pro (sub req’d): With Caffeine, Google Reveals the Challenges of Real-Time

Post and thumbnail photos courtesy of Flickr user Kevin Dooley

24 Responses to “Should the Government Regulate Google? The NYT Seems to Think So”

  1. Why do you complain if Google’s products come first on their own search engine? They have the right to do that for it is their own. I will complain if all the results were of Google’s products on the first page of the search. Besides, you do have the option of being featured on top of the search list. Why complain if you have other options to be on top of the search list?

    • les madras

      The same sort of argument was put forth by Microsoft regarding the windows monopoly. If Microsoft were not forced to unbundle windows, the only search option on IE today would be Bing and Google would be a shadow toiling in the corners. We would never know if a better alternative exists if the monopolist is allowed to dominate.

  2. les madras


    Search engines are valuable only if the web is fragmented, and Google seeks to keep the web fragmented. Any time a single site aggregates traffic, Google steps in with an algorithm change to lower the traffic it sends that site.

    Since Gigaom gets ~12% of its traffic from Search, your lack of awareness is understandable.

  3. CarolMerril

    How bout a few simple search tests on Google?

    1. search for “email” What comes up first?
    2. search for “maps” What comes up first?
    3. search for “analytics” What comes up first?
    4. search for “talk” What comes up first?

    I could go on. All these searches bring up Google products first. Do you really want to say that there weren’t more and more popular links for these words? I don’t think so.

    Rather than quoting the usual media friendly suspects who depend somewhat on their access to Google and are less likely to want to offend it, how about someone like Michael Gray, who has more acerbic observations on Google behavior. It would appear more investigative and balanced.

    • Yes. And the omission of any links to Microsoft on the first page after searching “spreadsheet” is merely coincidental. Google has always said that you cannot buy a better search result placement, but that doesn’t mean they don’t order them or suppress them to advance their own interests.

      • John Selden

        Have you tried these same searches on Bing?

        If you search “maps,” “talk,” or “analytics” on Bing, the Google products still comes up first. If you search “spreadsheet” on Bing, Wikipedia comes up first, Google Docs is second and fourth, and Excel is nowhere to be found on the first page. That would suggest that Google’s results are the correct ones, rather than some conspiracy to promote its own products.

      • les madras


        You might try bidding on some keywords to see what those sponsored links cost. For example, if you are a restaurant in the Bay Area, you would pay about $4 for each sponsored click related to the keyword “restaurant.” Insane, but there is no alternative.

      • Well, Google has always said that that sponsored links should be clearly marked so they don’t taint the integrity of the search results. If they are suppressing their competitor’s products from visibility in the search results, which appears to be the case with Microsoft in some instances, then the search results don’t really have integrity, and that is no different than the very accusations they are making against ISPs and lobbying the government to protect people from.

        A point of confusion in the NYT article seems to be the presupposition that search users are customers and entitled to some sort of rights as a customer, which they aren’t. They’re a part of the product that Google sells to customers…. They make money when a user clicks on an advertisement. (there are zero occurrences of the word customer in the terms of service for Google’s free stuff, there are many references to the word customer in the terms of service in their advertising products). Further, if Google wants their own ads to appear in the sponsored links, then a competitor would need to try and outbid the house, which would be just about impossible.

        See #4, #6 Makes you wonder how these design principles can produce no link to Microsoft after searching on “spreadsheet” and the #1 link is to Google Docs. Excel has been the de facto, worldwide spreadsheet standard for over a decade, while Google Docs is an emerging service whose user base is not even a rounding error. The corollary to that argument is that if you always display the incumbent or standard, how does a new alternative get visibility? In this case, though, the incumbent is totally suppressed. A Google apologist would assume this is innocent, a cynic would say that it’s an intentional omission.

        Does that mean the government should regulate search? Gosh, I hope not! There are plenty of antitrust laws in place to address anticompetitive behavior, just like there are to handle issues relating to ISP blocking. The government should stay out of the Internet ecosystem and intervene when someone is being harmed… and the thought of politically appointed bureaucracies deciding what search results are fair (or how packets should be managed on a network) gets a bit scary. It can potentially impact the outcome of elections, which is a power Google has today with their market share… also an antenna raising concern given their intimate ties with the current administration. If Google wants to lobby the government to impose neutrality (which is another search term that produces unbalanced results that are aligned with Google’s agenda) and customer data rules on ISPs, then they shouldn’t have a problem complying with the same rules themselves. What’s good for the goose should be good for the gander, right? It’s just fun to watch their self-serving arguments turned around on them.

        Since this website has a heavy Internet startup audience, it would be interesting to know how many startups are more concerned that an ISP will come along and block access to their customers than they are about getting visibility in Google, and potentially trying to compete with Google. Clearly, Google has defined ISPs as the boogie man that all startups and consumers should fear. A diversionary tactic, it seems.

        That the NYT published this editorial wasn’t much a surprise to me, they would much prefer that users not go through Google to get their news, and rather go directly to the source.

        Thanks for your article, it’s a provocative discussion with some tough issues to think about.

    • sfitts

      Was I asleep when the position of NYT editor was elevated to a cabinet level position?

      This has less to do with the policy leanings of the current administration than it does with the desperateness of the newspaper industry.

  4. Mike Snow

    How about a set of standardized tests that are designed to show any “rigged” results? If all anyone cares about is that the results are calculated in a statistically consistent way & that there is no slant to Google’s own properties, then tests are all that is needed.

    Regulation “Ugh”, that ensures favors are down for the highest bidder, just look at our banking system.