Google Openness Campaign Meets Opposition
As Google has grown larger and come under scrutiny for potential antitrust practices, the search engine giant has decided to launch something of a charm offensive, engaging both politicians and media types on talking points designed to portray the company as healthy for online competition.
In advance of Google's annual shareholder meeting on May 7, CEO Eric Schmidt responded to antitrust accusations by saying the company had become "more careful about when and how we do things."
That hasn't stopped consumer advocacy groups from arguing that Google has the potential to be a monopoly, and in response to reported investigations by the FTC and the U.S. Department of Justice, Google has set out to publicly refute those claims.
On May 8, a posting on the Google Public Policy blog announced that the company has been meeting with "policymakers, think tank representatives, academics, journalists, ad agencies and trade associations" in order to pound home a message that the company is amenable to both competition and openness, as opposed to being a search engine Death Star.
"We haven't always done a good job telling our story," Adam Kovacevich, senior manager of global communications and public affairs for Google, wrote in the blog post, following up with what he described as Google's "six principles of competition and openness." These were:
Help other businesses be more competitive.
Make it easy for users to change.
Open is better than closed.
Competition is one click away.
Advertisers pay what a click is worth to them.
Advertisers have many choices in a dynamic market.
Certain consumer advocacy organizations, however, do not have a warm and fuzzy feeling about Google's motives. In a May 8 news release, nonprofit group Consumer Watchdog described sending the Department of Justice a copy of a document that Google had been using to back its anti-monopolistic claims; the nonprofit group had taken the liberty of marking the document up with comments.
"As the Justice Department examines the Google book deal and other Google enterprises, it deserves to see the play book Google has prepared to deflect scrutiny and insider commentary on how many Google myths lack a basis in reality," the accompanying Consumer Watchdog statement said. "Google's charm and spin should not be allowed to deter antitrust regulators from seeing the real problems with Google's dominance."
The markups by Consumer Watchdog pull no punches. For example, on the opening page, entitled, "Google, Competition and Openness," the group has written beneath, "'Openness pushed on other businesses (open-source access, Internet, handset, spectrum, yaddah, yaddah...'"
In response to Google's first principle of competition and openness, "Help other businesses be more competitive," the group wrote, "LOL ... not working so well for newspapers, publishers, booksellers, search, advertisers, media, etc."
Google argued in May 7 Congressional testimony that its Google News service will help boost digital media by attracting advertising dollars and ensuring that relevant news stories end up pushed to the top of its cluster.
This is not the first time that Consumer Watchdog has taken a run at Google. In April 2009, the group sent a letter to U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder asking the Justice Department to intervene in the Google settlement with The Authors Guild and the Association of American Publishers, arguing that the deal was not in the best interests of consumers.
Under the settlement, Google created a nonprofit Book Rights Registry to handle digital rights issues, which gave Google the right to negotiate on the same terms as any future competitor for digital book rights. A spokesperson for Consumer Watchdog argued that the move constituted an "'anti-compete' clause ... which precludes smaller competitors from entering a market."
In response, the Justice Department reportedly began looking into the settlement as a potential antitrust case, interviewing representatives of the participants in the deal. However, such talks don't necessarily indicate that the Justice Department will find fault with or scuttle the settlement.