In re: Google Search Plus
- FTC Closes Investigation into Google Search Bias: The Federal Trade Commission announced that it had concluded its investigation into allegedly anticompetitive practices by Google. The Commission reached a settlement with Google that would give competitors access to patents necessary to make smart phones, laptops, and other devices, and Google voluntarily agreed to stop borrowing others' content for use in its own services. On the issue of search bias, however, the Commission decided to close the investigation without taking action. Despite finding some evidence that changes to the company's search algorithm harmed competitors, the Commission said that these changes "could be plausibly justified as innovations that improved Google's product and the experience of its users." In 2011, EPIC wrote to the Commission about Google's use of Youtube search rankings to give preferential treatment to its own video content over non-Google content. EPIC had also opposed Google's acquisition of online advertiser Doubleclick, which was approved by the FTC over the objection of former FTC Commissioner Pamela Harbor. EPIC later testified before the Antitrust committee on Google's growing dominance of essential Internet services. For more information, see EPIC: Federal Trade Commission and EPIC: Google/DoubleClick. (Jan. 3, 2013)
- FTC Adds Google+ to Antitrust Investigation: Bloomberg News has reported that the Federal Trade Commission has expanded its antitrust investigation of Google to include Google's social networking service, Google+. The report comes after Google announced that it would include personal data gathered from Google+ in the results of users' searches, a move that led EPIC to urge the FTC to investigate the company. EPIC said that "Google's business practices raise concerns related to both competition and the implementation of the Commission’s consent order," referring to a settlement that the FTC reached with Google that establishes new privacy safeguards for users of all Google products and services and subjects the company to regular privacy audits. Google first confirmed the FTC’s antitrust investigation in June 2011. Recently, the Senate held a hearing on Google's use of its dominance in the search market to suppress competition, and EPIC urged the Federal Trade Commission to investigate Google's use of Youtube search rankings to give preferential treatment to its own video content over non-Google content. For more information, see EPIC: Google/DoubleClick and EPIC: Federal Trade Commission. (Jan. 13, 2012)
- Google Changes Search Results, Preferences Google+ Results: Google is changing the results displayed by its search engine to include data from its social network, such as photos or blog posts made by Google+ users, as well as the public Internet. Although data from a user’s Google+ contacts is not displayed publicly, Google’s changes make the personal data of users more accessible. Users can opt out of seeing personalized search results, but cannot opt out of having their information found through Google search. Also, Google's changes come at a time when the company is facing increased scrutiny over whether it distorts search results by giving preference to its own content. Recently, the Senate held a hearing on Google's use of its dominance in the search market to suppress competition, and EPIC urged the Federal Trade Commission to investigate Google's use of Youtube search rankings to give preferential treatment to its own video content over non-Google content. Google has also acknowledged that the FTC is investigating whether Google uses its dominance in the search field to inhibit competition in other areas. For more information, see EPIC: Google/DoubleClick. (Jan. 10, 2012)
- Senate Holds Hearing on Google’s Anticompetitive Practices: Today's Senate Judiciary Committee hearing "The Power of Google: Serving Consumers or Threatening Competition?” examined Google’s use of its dominance in the search market to suppress competition. The company’s executive chairman, Eric Schmidt, testified on the first panel, while witnesses from Google’s rivals Yelp and Nextag appeared on the second panel. The hearing covered a wide range of issues, including search bias, Google’s proprietary search algorithm, and the downgrading of search rankings. EPIC testified before the the same committee in 2009 on Google’s growing dominance of essential Internet services, and recently sent a letter to the Federal Trade Commission regarding Google’s biasing of Youtube search rankings to give preferential treatment to its own video content. For more information, see EPIC: Google/DoubleClick and EPIC: Federal Trade Commission. (Sep. 21, 2011)
- EPIC Urges FTC to Examine YouTube Search Rankings Following Google Acquisition: EPIC sent a letter to the FTC urging the Trade Commission to investigate the extent to which Google has used its dominance in the search market to influence the marketplace of online video content. EPIC pointed specifically to the Google acquisition of YouTube and the change in the YouTube search rankings that followed. EPIC said that Google substituted its own subjective, "relevance" ranking in place of objective search criteria, such as "Hits" or "Rankings," to preference Google's own video material over non-Google material. EPIC's letter includes detailed examples using the search term "privacy." Google has acknowledged that the Commission has opened an investigation into the company's business practices for possible antitrust violations. EPIC previously testified before the Senate Judiciary Antitrust Subcommittee on Google's growing dominance of essential Internet services. For more information, see EPIC: Google/DoubleClick and EPIC: Federal Trade Commission. (Sep. 8, 2011)
Google is a company created by Larry Page and Sergey Brin in 1998. Originally, Google was a search engine service, but since its inception, the company has expanded to create several web applications that encourage sharing of information. These applications include Gmail, Google Calendar, Google+, and Google Docs.
Google Search Plus
On January 10, 2012, Google announced that it would include personal data gathered from Google+ in the results of users' searches, including photos, posts, and business pages of users and their contacts. In addition to the personal information of a user’s contacts, search will also display Google+ business pages and notable Google+ users on the right-hand column of the results page.
Experts have noted that Google’s changes implicate concerns over whether the company prioritizes its own content when returning search results. Incorporating results from Google+ into ordinary search results allows Google to promote its own social network by leveraging its dominance in the search engine market. Search Engine Land’s Danny Sullivan wrote that Google’s changes favor Google+ “even more than [he initially] thought,” by “turn[ing] Google+ into an essential social network for any search marketer.” For example, the right-hand display of notable business and Google+ users replaces highly-visible advertising space, even for consumers who have no Google+ accounts and are not logged in to Google.
Benjamin Edelman, professor at the Harvard Business School, wrote that “Google is favoring its own ancillary services even when other destinations are objectively superior, and Google is using its dominance in search to compel users to accept Google’s other offerings.” He concluded by saying that “Google’s dominant position in search requires that the company hold itself to a higher level of conduct, including avoiding tying its other products to its dominant search service. Google has repeatedly crossed the line, and antitrust enforcement action is required to put a stop to these practices.”
Furthermore, although data from a user’s Google+ contacts is not displayed publicly, Google’s changes make the personal data of users more accessible. Users might, for example, “com[e] across an unexpected photo or post from a friend, [and] might reshare it to the world” or “[t]hings that people may have forgotten sharing with others will begin to show up serendipitously through ordinary Google searches.” James Grimmelmann, an associate professor at New York Law School, said that Google’s change “breaks down a very clear conceptual divide between things that are private and things that are public online.” Google allows users to opt out of receiving search results that include personal data, but users cannot opt out of having their information found by their Google+ contacts through Google search. In contrast, Google allows content owners to remove pages from Google’s public search results.
EPIC’s letter to the FTC highlights several aspects of the Google Search Plus service that implicate the implementation of the FTC's consent order as well as concerns over whether the company prioritizes its own content when returning search results.
EPIC’s letter begins by detailing Google's history with the FTC, particularly in regards to Google Buzz and Youtube (a Google owned web video company) search results. EPIC’s 2010 complaint concerning Google Buzz, filed with the support of other privacy and civil liberties groups, provided the basis for the Commission’s investigation and October 24, 2011 subsequent settlement concerning the social networking service. In that case, the Commission found that Google “used deceptive tactics and violated its own privacy promises to consumers when it launched [Buzz].” The settlement prohibits the company from future privacy misrepresentations and requires it to obtain the affirmative consent of users prior to “new or additional sharing” of personal information with any third party. The settlement also requires Google to implement a comprehensive privacy program and calls for biennial, independent privacy audits for the next 20 years.
EPIC also cited its own experience with Google's search algorithm. In September of 2011, EPIC asked the FTC to investigate Google’s use of its search engine criteria to give preferential treatment to its own YouTube videos on “privacy.” EPIC explained that following Google’s acquisition of YouTube, Google revised the YouTube search criteria such that Google’s subjective “relevance” rankings became the default for returning search results. As a consequence, Google's own online videos on “privacy” are more likely to be ranked highly, and therefore viewed by internet users, than if the original search criteria had remained as the default. EPIC, which also makes videos concerning “privacy” available through YouTube, noted that it was specifically disadvantaged by Google’s preference for its own content. Google’s recent changes to its search results raise similar competitive issues.
The letter goes on to describe the anti-competitive aspects of Google's changes in business practices. EPIC argues that "[i]ncorporating results from Google+ into ordinary search results allows Google to promote its own social network by leveraging its dominance in the search engine market." Antitrust experts, such as Benjamin Edelman of the Harvard Business School, have also stated that "Google has repeatedly crossed the line, and antitrust enforcement action is required to put a stop to these practices." Edelman notes that "the top-most result [of a Google search] enjoys 34%+ of all clicks -- so when Google takes that position for itself, there's far less for everyone else."
Finally, the letter notes that "although data from a user’s Google+ contacts is not displayed publicly, Google’s changes make the personal data of users more accessible. . . . Google allows users to opt out of receiving search results that include personal data, but users cannot opt out of having their information found by their Google+ contacts through Google search. In contrast, Google allows content owners to remove pages from Google’s public search results."
The FTC's primary enforcement authority with regards to privacy is derived from 15 U.S.C. § 45, commonly known as section 5 of the Federal Trade Commission Act (FTCA). Section 5 of the FTCA allows the FTC to investigate "unfair methods of competition in or affecting commerce, and unfair or deceptive acts or practices in or affecting commerce." This law provides a legal basis for the FTC to regulate business activities that threaten consumer privacy.
- EPIC's Letter to the FTC regarding Google search (Jan. 12, 2012)
- Letter from FTC's David Vladeck regarding EPIC's Google Buzz Complaint
- EPIC's Amended Complaint in In re Google Buzz
- EPIC's FTC Complaint in In re Google Buzz (Feb. 16, 2010)
- EPIC's FTC Complaint regarding Cloud Computing in In re Google (Mar. 17, 2009)
- Real-Life Examples Of How Google’s “Search Plus” Pushes Google+ Over Relevancy, Danny Sullivan, Search Engine Land, Jan. 10, 2012.
- Google Tying Google Plus and Many More, Benjamin Edelman, Jan. 12, 2012.
- Google’s Results Get More Personal With “Search Plus Your World,”, Danny Sullivan, Search Engine Land, Jan. 10, 2012.
- Google’s Social Move Attracts Critics, Nick Bilton, NY Times, Jan. 10, 2012.
- I’m Not Here To Make Friends, Farhad Manjoo, Slate, Jan. 11, 2012.
- Google Search Undergoes “Most Radical Transformation Ever”, John D. Sutter, CNN, Jan. 10, 2012.
- Report: Google’s Search Update Could Warrant an FTC Probe, Leslie Horn, PC Magazine, Jan. 12, 2012.
- Google likely to face FTC complaint over “Search Plus Your World”, Jessica Guynn, LA Times, Jan. 11, 2012.
- EPIC to FTC: does Google Search Plus violate privacy, antitrust?, Elinor Mills, CNET, Jan. 12, 2012.