Editor’s Note: This is the third post in an ACSblog debate on antitrust scrutiny of Google between Harvard Business School Professor Benjamin G. Edelman and George Mason University School of Law Professor Joshua D. Wright. This online debate follows a recent U.S. Senate hearing on whether Google’s business practices “serve consumers” or “threaten competition.”
By Benjamin G. Edelman, Assistant Professor, Harvard Business School
Professor Wright questions whether Google biases results towards its own services, and asks whether consumers are harmed even if Google does bias its results. I don’t find these questions so difficult, and while Professor Wright suggests we’d struggle to identify appropriate remedies, I see some straightforward solutions.
Let’s start with the question of whether Google biases its results towards its own services. On a whim, I ran a search for pop superstar Justin Bieber. Google’s top-most link promoted Google News (in oversized bold type). Down a few inches came a “Videos” section where three thumbnails and three video titles all linked to YouTube clips. (Less prominent links identified other services showing these same videos – links added only after critics flagged the problem of Google always directing this traffic to its own video site.) Lower, Google presented a block of Google Images results. In the analogous context of extra-prominent links to Google Finance, Google’s Marissa Mayer argued that the company should be permitted to put its own links first. “It seems only fair right, we do all the work for the search page and all these other things, so we do put it first.” Marissa doesn’t dispute that Google favors its own links – and she couldn’t, when Google’s links widely appear in prominent ways no other service enjoys.
And what of the consequences of Google’s bias? Professor Wright posits an “efficient bias” wherein Google usefully offers consumers its full suite of services. Certainly it’s handy to have a single Google password providing access to personalized search, finance, videos, and more. But this misses the serious harms of Google’s ever-broadening panoply of services.