The European Commission's recent filing of a statement of objections against Google shows that regulators are asking big questions about the state of online competition in search. While the European Commission has elevated its concern, the U.S. Federal Trade Commission has already found Google's business practices to be pro-competitive and good for consumers. Amid these two different paths, the Canadian Competition Bureau continues to conduct its own review.
While the precise details of the EC's objections are not public, we do know that after the FTC closed its case involving Google, many of the same complainants exported their case to Europe. These complainants argue that Google is abusing its power and that recent search innovations are not sending them enough traffic. They've also sought to conflate the use of Google's popular search engine with general access to the Internet.
But these arguments are credible only if search engines are thought of as gatekeepers to the Internet that should be regulated like public utilities.
Is a search engine a gatekeeper? Not in today's world. Consumers have many ways to navigate the Web. They can directly visit their favourite websites, engage through social networks or spend their time inside mobile apps. Consumers are also increasingly bypassing the guidance of Google and Bing altogether with specialized search sites.
Technology is more ingrained in people's busy lives, and they often seek quick answers and trusted recommendations. In turn, today's search engines have evolved with the Internet to give consumers what they want more directly. They can ask a search engine a question and immediately be given an answer; the consumer can often avoid clicking another site or reading through more content to find the answer. Still, the consumer has the choice of going further and visiting sites for more information.
This type of benefit has extended into areas such as online shopping, where intense competition has resulted not just in more innovation but in more choice. With Google or competing sites, users can either click through numerous links and browse various retailers and shopping comparison sites or see pictures, prices and product reviews of headphones or handbags all in one place, then click directly to the merchant. And today, most online shoppers go to sites such as Amazon, eBay or counterparts such as Europe's Allegro and Zalando or Canada's RedFlagDeals, bypassing traditional search engines altogether.
Google's critics want to impose a regulatory regime that would dictate how these search results are determined in order to tilt the competitive landscape in their favour. This would stifle innovation and choice. Furthermore, search engines should be able to adapt their services to consumer wants and needs. While some price-comparison sites would very much like users to find merchants by way of their sites, consumers may prefer to get the best and latest information on pricing and availability from retailers through a service such as Google Shopping to save them time and frustration.
As the tension between Europe and the United States plays out, Canada's Competition Bureau should recognize the gatekeeper portrait for what it truly is: a red herring. Google's rivals simply want regulators to force search engines to direct more traffic to them – a free ride on Google's innovation and consumer responsiveness.
Indeed, the FTC examined Google's specialized search practices under a microscope for two years before ruling in 2013 that there was no evidence of foul play. It really boiled down to Google being better at responding to consumer demand.
As the Competition Bureau moves forward in its own investigation, it too should let consumers decide what they want from a search engine and let their tastes and interests continue to drive the rapid innovation that has taken place in this market. The bureau should remain focused on protecting competition and should not be lulled into protecting the interests of particular competitors.
David Balto is a former policy director of the U.S. Federal Trade Commission and antitrust lawyer at the U.S. Department of Justice. He has been a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress and has worked with the International Center on Law and Economics, both of which receive funding from many organizations, including Google. He has also published research and authored scholarship for Google on technology policy topics.