Net-Neutrality Coiner Concerned About Google Search

Tim Wu says government should be taking new look at local

Columbia Law Professor Tim Wu says he thinks the FTC or Justice Department, or both, should be looking anew at Google and new evidence the search giant has been favoring its own content in local search.

That came in a Senate Antitrust Subcommittee hearing April 5 on unfair methods of competition.

The Federal Trade Commission closed an investigation into Google search in 2013. Wu agreed with that decision, but based on new evidence has changed his view of the potential consumer harm of its Google's actions.

Wu said one of the challenges of the FTC's prior Google investigation was that there was not strong evidence at the time of consumer harm; Google made what Wu said at the time was a convincing argument that its universal search was preferred by consumers and was better overall. That was one of the reasons the investigation was closed.

In subsequent research, Wu said he has found that "in certain areas Google is manipulating its search in an anti-competitive way," particularly with regard to local search.

"I think that evidence makes a difference and I think Google is, at this point, in a different position," Wu said. "I think there is stronger evidence of consumer harm now."

Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.), who raised the issue of Google and search, said if Google is giving preference to its own properties, and if in fact there is consumer harm that was not apparent to Wu before, that should be a basis for enforcement action under Sec. 5 authority over unfair methods of competition.

Wu, who coined the term net-neutrality, said that it was a complicated case, but added: "I think the FTC should be looking at this, or the Justice Department, or both."

Stanford Law professor A. Douglas Melamed, who was also testifying, did not agree.

"Surely the fact that consumers would prefer a slightly different product cannot be the basis for government intervention," Melamed said.

That was a reference to Blumenthal's citing of a study by Wu and a colleague about favoring local search that found that Web surfers much preferred an organic search experience to one managed, or "biased" as Blumenthal termed it, by Google. Google has argued that its search is consumer-friendly and consumer-preferred.

Blumenthal said it was not just about consumers preferring or wanting one service over another, but aboout Google in effect denying free choice, though he conceded the issue was one on which he did not yet have all the facts.