Search and Destroy: More antitrust allegations against Google

As reported by the Wall Street Journal last Thursday, Google faces a potential civil antitrust investigation from the U.S. Federal Trade Commission for practices that include privileging certain search results based on how much a company is willing to pay for such ‘advertising.’ This lack of transparency in Google’s advertising business practices, along with the company’s habit of swiftly buying up and appropriating competitors, have been characterized as anticompetitive behaviour. While the fact that Google is accused of engaging in illegal, and at least unethical, business practices through its essential monopoly on web search might not surprise political economists of the commercial internet, the case against Google will be consequential for antitrust policy in the digital age. And more broadly, the accusations against Google highlight how the overarching commercial architecture of web space further undermines the last vestiges of notions like ‘democratization,’ ‘neutrality,’ and ‘free competition’ online.

When a company as powerful as Google, providing a service as essential as internet search, becomes the target of antitrust allegations, it threatens not only the more celebratory claims about digital culture, but the conceit of cultural production more generally that an a priori free space for culture might exist at all. As Tarleton Gillespie (2010) points out, we should be critical of the semantic investment in cultural production ‘platforms’ as level playing fields that exist in advance of their colonization by powerful interests:

The term ‘platform’ helps reveal how YouTube and others stage themselves for these constituencies, allowing them to make a broadly progressive sales pitch while also eliding the tensions inherent in their service: between user-generated and commercially-produced content, between cultivating community and serving up advertising, between intervening in the delivery of content and remaining neutral. (348)

Reflecting on Google as a platform (or super-platform) in this way begs the question of territory online: whose jurisdiction is it to regulate Google? A similar antitrust investigation was launched last year by the European Commission, based on parallel allegations of the company prioritizing certain ‘unendorsed’ search results, which, as the press release mentions, “are sometimes also referred to as ‘natural,’ ‘organic’ or ‘algorithmic’ search results.” The discursive work of Google’s platform-ness here was seen as part of the justification for launching the still-pending investigation into its supposedly ‘natural’ search ranking practices and bringing them under trade regulation.

Yet any regulation of Google on the basis of competition will be difficult, as legal scholar Frank Pasquale has neatly summarized in a blog post from 2009. Pasquale notes that simply coming up with another search company to usurp Google – the remedy that many popular tech writers have proposed – runs into a number of substantial obstacles, including territorial claims on consumer preferences, AdSense data and trade-secret algorithms.

For me, what is interesting amid the regulatory debates is the language used to characterize Google as territory. In quasi-ephemeral online space, territory might be made synonymous with traffic, where the number of users constitutes the ultimate determinant of market share. Accordingly, Google’s response in a Google Blog post last Friday mobilized the familiar rhetoric of “putting the user first.” Google search is optimized for the user above all, where the company aims to provide “Instant answers. New sources of knowledge. Powerful tools – all for free.” Bad grammar notwithstanding, Google’s appeal to user power has been its main marketing angle for a prosperous decade-plus.

But given the FTC’s antitrust claims as a backdrop for Google’s glorified “focus on the user,” where does ‘the user’ stand? It seems as though the user who labours to optimize Google search, in Larry Lessig’s (2008) vignette, might be due for an upgrade:

Every Google product is designed to give a user what he or she wants and, at the same time, to gather data that Google needs. You don’t have a choice about helping Google when you use Google’s search engine. Your search is a gift to the company as well as something valuable to you. The company efficiently serves you a product, and very efficiently learns something in the process. (136)

What has happened to the user who labours when Google’s search algorithms are based on advertising models? When variations on this question were posed repeatedly to a couple of Google social scientists (who shall remain nameless) at a top-secret talk to doctoral students last summer, they were answered with stern faces. The marketing department and research/engineering department at the Mountain View, California Googleplex are separated by a “firewall,” apparently, where search algorithms are designed for “usability” in blissful ignorance of client relations. As a twisted iteration of what Harry Braverman (1974) saw as the role of science and technology in monopoly capital – where manufacturing innovations serve to bring labour under scientific management, just as Google’s algorithmic innovations serve to bring labour under commercial management – the social scientists from Google were enacting their own kind of disavowal and deskilling of user labour through the very rhetoric of user empowerment.

On that cheerful note, I would like to leave off with some half-baked (as requested) questions/provocations for discussion: first, could this antitrust case turn out to be the sequel to the FTC v. Microsoft antitrust saga of the 1990s? If so, then what does that mean for the future regulation of conglomerate internet platforms? Should traditional antitrust law be re-worked for an online context that troubles the boundaries of national jurisdiction? How might antitrust principles in this case be articulated alongside other regulatory issues, such as privacy and surveillance in online search? In linking the macro-level business strategies of Google to quotidian user labour in this way, how might behavioural advertising be implicated in such regulation? And, to atone for asking so many regulation questions, how does Google as a super-platform characterize the field of cultural production on the contemporary commercial internet? Talk amongst yourselves… but not on G-chat 🙂 -t