For years, Yelp's senior VP of public policy, Luther Lowe, has been complaining on Twitter about how every minute of every day Google screws his company by inserting its own listings instead of Yelp's when people use its search engine – even when Google's version is minimal.
Yesterday he finally got to bring his complaints to the US Congress at a time when lawmakers seem to be serious about taking on the market abuses of Big Tech. Lowe came prepared.
"There have been concerning reports that the state attorneys general and the DoJ are pursuing incredibly narrow theories of harm in their respective Google investigations, only looking at advertising technology," he told the Senate Committee on the Judiciary, Subcommittee on Antitrust, Competition Policy and Consumer Rights. "I believe making the focus too narrow would be a grave mistake."
He went on: "You can't look at Standard Oil without looking at oil; you cannot investigate Google without looking at search. That is what makes today's hearing – on the self-serving bias of companies like Google – so important. Dominant internet platforms like Google enjoy enormous market power.
"For years, Google, in particular, has biased its results to serve its interests and leverage its power to entrench it further and hurt consumers in the process. Today, when a mom searches for a pediatrician in Salt Lake City on Google, instead of being matched with the most relevant information from across the web, she is steered toward a set of results that come solely from Google's exclusionary corpus of ratings and reviews."
Like the good old days
He's not wrong. It's been an open secret for years that Google uses its almost total dominance in search results to massively bias its own services. Small startups used to dream of creating a service that got so much traffic that Google would notice and then buy it out for millions. But in recent years, Google has gone from cash-out king to Microsoft circa 1990 – it spots what is becoming popular and then uses its enormous resources to create its own version, before using its software dominance to screw the original producer.
The European Commission has been all over Google in recent years for abusing its market dominance, landing it with billions in fines, but until very recently the company was untouchable in the United States thanks in no small part to its extensive lobbying efforts and its extraordinary connections within government, particularly the Obama administration.
Google has its own listings service that is nowhere as extensive or in-depth as that of Yelp but, as Lowe pointed out, for some reason that service keeps being placed at the top of search results, ushering millions of people every day in a different direction.
"This self-serving bias matches unwitting consumers with objectively lower quality information," he complained. "And because local searches like this are the most common type of search people conduct, Google's self-dealing produces at least a billion degraded search results in the United States every week."
The result is "a dire threat to our market, the local search market, as well as many other specialized search markets," he warned, accusing Google of stifling competition and restricting output. We'll ignore for a second Yelp's own questionable business practices where it allows businesses to remove negative reviews if they take out advertising with them.
Remember Internet Explorer?
The solution, Lowe argued in front of senators, was the same as it was with Microsoft in the government's landmark case against in 2001 when Bill Gates et al were accused of illegally maintaining a monopoly by jamming its Internet Explorer browser onto Windows machines and setting it as a default.
What Google is doing is effectively the same thing, Lowe argued: "Microsoft once illegally steered users of its operating system to its own browser over others', so too is Google, through its search manipulation, illegally steering internet searches toward its own properties. Like Microsoft before it, Google is attacking vertical rivals to preserve its primary monopoly."
The similarities between Microsoft of the 1990s and the Google of today are extensive but the reality is that in America's heavily capitalist system where a free market with limited government interference is the preferred default, change will only happen if lawmakers are convinced that things have gone too far.
The subcommittee chair, Mike Lee (R-UT), made it clear right off the bat that there was still some way to go before Google would be moved from hero to villain. "We also cannot fall prey to the mentality that treats big as categorically bad," he said in his opening remarks and pushed a familiar line about how intervening in the market could swing in the wrong direction.
Others senators were willing to be more critical of Google but steered clear of Lowe's proposed Microsoft-style remedy – after all, what would be in it for senators if the DoJ sued and took all the credit?
From the presidential campaign trail, top Democrat on the committee Amy Klobuchar (D-MN) took the opportunity to flag her new bill – which just so happened to be introduced the same day – that would prevent "exclusionary conduct" that presents an "appreciable risk of harming competition".
It would also require companies with a market share of more than 50 per cent to prove that they do not present an "appreciable risk of harming competition" as well as give the DoJ and FTC the power to fine such companies up to 15 per cent of their total US revenues if they were to be carrying out such conduct, among other things.
The bill has the backing of two high-profile Democrats – Richard Blumenthal (D-CT) and Cory Booker (D-NJ) – but the likelihood of it progressing through the rest of the Senate is unclear.
But Lowe's testimony – as well as others from Public Knowledge, the Open Markets Institute and the App Association – did appear to cause a shift in some senators' minds. Josh Hawley (R-MO) and Blumenthal used the hearing to highlight a letter they sent to the Attorney General asking him to expand the DoJ's antitrust investigation into Google to include search operations, noting the EU's $2.7bn fine on the same matter and bringing up the controversial decision by the FTC to drop a case against Google back in 2012 for pretty much the same thing, despite its staff concluding that Google was manipulating search results.
Lawmakers, prosecutors and the White House might not have much of an appetite for taking on the tech giants, but with each new step toward prosecution, it seems that the general public is still on board and the only companies making a big fuss are the very ones under investigation.
It may have taken years longer than it should have, but it seems people are finally ready to listen to Yelp's Lowe after years of him talking to a brick wall. ®