Why Google Plus Is At The Center Of Major Antitrust Lawsuit

CREDIT: PAUL SAKUMA, AP
CREDIT: PAUL SAKUMA, AP

Many can agree Google Plus, as it was initially designed, is a terrible and largely failed social media platform compared to Twitter, Facebook and now Snapchat. But beyond a relatively sparse user-base and forcing users to link Google Plus accounts to navigate Google’s ecosystem, like commenting on YouTube videos, some Google Plus use could be illegal.

A new study called “Is Google Degrading Search?” found Google’s claim that its search engine business works in users’ best interests was unfounded, and culling Google Plus accounts to promote businesses and local professionals hurts consumers.

“The easy and widely disseminated argument that Google’s universal search always serves users and merchants is demonstrably false. Instead…Google appears to be strategically deploying universal search in a way that degrades the product co as to slow and exclude challengers to its dominant search paradigm,” researchers wrote.

The study, a collaboration between by Tim Wu, a Columbia University law professor and internet theorist, assistant Harvard University business professor Michael Luca, and Yelp data scientists, found “empirical evidence” that Google’s search algorithms are used “in a manner that degrades the search product and harms Google’s users. Such conduct therefore cannot be described as pro-competitive.”

Researchers ran blind tests on 2,690 users with two data sets — one consisting of typical Google results that promoted native Google content often pulled from Google Plus, and another that displayed results Google’s algorithm naturally picked through a browser plug-in. The results, which were presented at the UK’s Antitrust Enforcement Symposium over the weekend, favored Google’s natural algorithm indicating that consumers were more satisfied with non-Google Plus or other Google-sponsored content.

This study demonstrates that users would be more likely to engage with local specialized search results if Google were to replace its proprietary ‘answers’ in universal search with results drawn from the whole web…

Google’s development of universal search, in general, can be accepted as an important innovation that can improve consumer welfare. But it seizes on the fact that, as implemented, Google appears to have chosen to do so in a way that neglects an obvious and clearly more effective alternative, resulting in harm to consumers, merchants, and its competitors…

Google is sacrificing a higher quality and potentially more profitable product in favor of a more exclusionary option. That fortifies the intuition that the conduct is suspect.

The research undercuts Google’s longstanding defense in an European antitrust lawsuit that its near monopolistic presence as a helpful and benign public good. The European Commission filed antitrust suit against Google on behalf of 19 complainants in April, saying the company’s practice of elevating its own content over other merchants violated European law. Google could have to pay fines up to $6.4 billion if found guilty.

Google has faced antitrust complaints in the past regarding its search engine practices. In 2013, the U.S. Federal Trade Commission dropped its lawsuit against Google after it voluntarily agreed to change its ways.

The two-year investigation uncovered “aggressive” tactics to overcome competitors but nothing illegal, Beth Wilkinson, outside counsel for FTC, told Time magazine in 2013. But a FTC report leaked to the Wall Street Journal in May confirmed that Google tipped search results in favor of its own services. That report combined with the June study could amount to pretty damning evidence against everyone’s favorite search engine.