Google: US antitrust regulator was totally right to let us off the hook nearly 10 years ago

Just look at how Microsoft has grown since (but don't look at our results)


Google has bitten back at fresh reports that the ad giant had a fortuitous escape nearly a decade ago, when American antitrust regulators opted not to sue. It has also seized the opportunity to take another swipe at its arch-rival, Microsoft.

The piece by Rosie Lipscomb, Google's Director of Competition Legal, is in response to the publishing of the papers and memos that informed the Federal Trade Commission's (FTC) 2012 decision to shut down its antitrust investigation into Google.

Some 312 pages of internal memos were obtained by Politico, which highlighted some of the iffier assumptions made. Those turned out to be incorrect and an opportunity to deal with the burgeoning power of one of the giants of the technology world appeared to have been missed.

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As a reminder, the FTC spent 19 months at the start of the 2010s pondering antitrust charges amid complaints that the giant had fiddled with its search results to leave rivals out in the cold. As it transpired, the commissioners decided [PDF] back in January 2013 that the changes "likely benefited consumers" and that "Google's primary goal in introducing this content was to quickly answer, and better satisfy, its users' search queries by providing directly relevant information."

Of course they were.

Lipscomb's post is a recognition that the grumblings around this decision simply will not go away. Three of the five FTC commissioners responsible for the decision felt the need to administer a slapping to journalists in March 2015 in response to a leak of confidential information. Goodness knows what the FTC must make of the latest emission.

Never one to miss a bit of Microsoft-bashing, Lipscomb set the wayback machine to 2012 and stated: "It's also clear from the papers how actively Microsoft and other rivals were encouraging these complaints," going on to point out that the Windows giant "has since grown even further, to become the second-biggest company in the US by market capitalization."

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Strangely, Lipscomb failed to mention the stratospheric growth of Google's parent company, Alphabet, which is currently one of the world's largest technology businesses, despite lacking Microsoft's diversified portfolio. Most of Alphabet's revenues – which were $168.6bn in 2020, up from $151.8bn the year before [PDF] – are primarily advertising-related.

Hindsight is a wonderful thing, and a glance at the papers published by Politico indicate that in their decision not to lob a sueball Google's way, the FTC's experts were unable to predict the future. Microsoft and Amazon failed catastrophically to mount any meaningful smartphone competition to Android and the FTC reckoned that ad trackers would only see "limited growth".

Are you sure you want to jog our memories?

Things are quite different today. Google has continued to haul out the increasingly dog-eared conclusions of the FTC when forced to fend off more recent legal filings. Its dominance in the search market continues to come under the gaze of competition regulators (38 US states recently sued it) and its legal woes are very much a global thing.

The EU also slapped it with a €1.49bn fine in 2019 for "abusive practices in online advertising."

As such, the continued bleating that it was treated unfairly and everything was fine nearly a decade ago comes across as a little petulant.

Highlighting the way things were in 2012 could backfire in Google's defence of itself, when one considers how things turned out.

The Register contacted Google for a comment. Presumably lacking access to a decent search engine, its communications team sent out a statement concerning the ongoing legal spat led by Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton:

"Attorney General Paxton's latest claims mischaracterise many aspects of our business, including the steps we are taking with the Privacy Sandbox initiative to protect people's privacy as they browse the web. These efforts have been welcomed by privacy advocates, advertisers and our own rivals as a step forward in preserving user privacy and protecting free content. We will strongly defend ourselves from AG Paxton's baseless claims in court."

When there are sueballs coming from all sides, it's easy to get a bit confused. ®


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