Conflict Search Goes European: Brussels launches antitrust inquiry into Santa’s Toyshop (aka Googleplex)

Remember this quote from Dana Wagner, then lead antitrust counsel for Google? “‘We want to be Santa Claus,” Mr. Wagner says. “We want to make lots of toys that people like playing with. But if you don’t want to play with our toys, you’ve got us. ‘We can’t really do evil things very easily – and if we did, you would leave.’”

But “[o]ne day in June 2006, search startup Foundem vanished from Google. Foundem is the developer of a “universal vertical search” technology, and currently offers comparison shopping across a range of consumer and travel categories by drilling down into vendor sites and returning details of actual flights and products. But on 26 June 2006, Google flipped a switch and all of the obvious comparison shopping keywords no longer applied for the company. Foundem had been effectively ‘disappeared’ from Google search results.” Thank you, El Reg.

“‘Google is in a position to pick the winners in just about every web-based market,’ says antitrust lawyer Gary Reback, who is part of the charge against Google Book Search. And, he adds, ‘it can do it without anyone even knowing.'”

And that is the point. Contrary to what Mr. Wagner says, Google can do evil things very easily. Just ask any company that has been “disappeared” by an adjustment to the Google algorithm (heavily protected by the IP rights that Google ignores when it comes to creators).

I’m sure that “disappeared” concept is not very popular at the Googleplex–kind of like Santa absconding with Mommy and the toys. Another place it’s not too popular is Brussels.

So how did the Smartest Guys in the Room prepare themselves for their first real Antitrust Beauty Pageant? First and foremost, by a lack of supervision. The first question you have to ask in this kind of meltdown is where was the board? Nowhere to be seen, apparently.

Second is, who programmed the algorithms to penalize competitors and push Google’s own products and services to the front of the line? Someone did. Just like YouTube would like you to believe that the direct infringement of other people’s work is “automatic”, someone had to decide that it could be automatic, just like some person had to decide to disappear Foundem to the back of the line in Google search results. Actually, Google can do evil things very easily–but they do it in the background to the proverbial “guys in the garage” – the next wave of innovators who have a difficult time fighting back, either because they are not as rich as Google (almost everyone) or because the harm is so massive that they would go broke trying to fight on Google’s litigation pitch. Particularly when Google can go to the public markets to raise litigation funds to perpetuate what polite company would call infringement. (Roughly like printing money.)

Some person told the machines what to do, just like some person perpetrated the bad acts that became the financial meltdown. And given the reputation of the Google leadership team for hands on involvement, it seems unlikely that a low level employee acting alone would be solely responsible. But if it gets that far, I’m sure we’ll find out to everyone’s shock and awe that there was one bad apple somewhere.

But most importantly for setting the tone for Google’s operations worldwide was Google Books. I guess there may be a more efficient way to alienate every creator on the planet all at once, but I frankly don’t know what it is. The bungling of the Google Books land grab has focused the governments of the world on Google and its activities–probably some of the WORST legal advice ever given.

As we have seen with Google Books in Europe and elsewhere, Google is a company that thinks nothing of attacking countries. History has shown that very few nations have been able to hold on by force to territories that they took by force. And taking someone’s national heritage by force is close enough, and Google Books is clearly an attempt to take whole swaths of national heritage and put it under the control of the Leviathan from Mountain View. And don’t forget–they have said that books are just the beginning. Movies and music are next. (They’ve actualy already started with movies on YouTube.)

And now–now we find in the Financial Times that “[t]he European Commission has launched a preliminary antitrust investigation into Google’s search engine and its search-advertising service [in response to complaints about its search practices] from Foundem, a UK price comparison service, and ejustice.fr, a French legal search engine, both of which had complained that they had been relegated to an unfairly low place in Google’s search rankings.”

The story of UK startup Foundem is quite interesting (see “When algorithms attack, does Google hear you scream?”: “One day in June 2006, search startup Foundem vanished from Google. Foundem is the developer of a “universal vertical search” technology, and currently offers comparison shopping across a range of consumer and travel categories by drilling down into vendor sites and returning details of actual flights and products. But on 26 June 2006, Google flipped a switch and all of the obvious comparison shopping keywords no longer applied for the company. Foundem had been effectively ‘disappeared’ from Google search results.”

“There is a widespread view that Google’s rankings are untouched by human hand, crafted impartially by machine, and machine alone. But there’s much more to it than that – Google’s verdicts on landing page quality are Google’s opinion, and the company even says as much, sometimes. The algorithms play a part in the verdict, certainly, but algorithms are produced by humans working to policies, so you could view them as a prism through which Google’s opinions are projected.”

We previously introduced the concept of “Conflict Search“. A good definition of Conflict Search is:

“Over several years…we’ve built the infrastructure, search algorithms, and presentation mechanisms to provide what we see as just the first step in the evolution toward universal search…using it to blend content from [Google] Images, [Google] Maps, [Google] Books, [Google] Video, and [Google] News into our web results.”

And who said that? Marissa Mayer, VP Search Products, Santa’s Workshop, quoted on her description of Google’s “Universal Search” initiative.

As Foundem says in their eye-popping complaint filed with the FCC:

“Universal Search transforms Google’s ostensibly neutral search engine into an immensely powerful marketing channel for Google’s other services. When coupled with Google’s 85% share of the global search market, this gives Google an unparalleled and virtually unassailable competitive advantage, reaching far beyond the confines of search. Universal Search allows Google to leverage its search engine monopoly into virtually any field it chooses. Wherever it does so, competitors will beharmed, new entrants will be discouraged, and innovation will inevitably be suppressed. These are not hypothetical risks. Although Universal Search is still in its infancy, there are already compelling examples of the harm it has done to competitors across a range of markets.”

In a word, Conflict Search. Santa is not neutral.

Foundem is fighting back. The best way to fight bullies is to fight bullies.

Like the man said, “the harder they come the harder they fall.”