Saturday, 15 July 2017

European Commission v Google

On 27Jun2017, the European Commission fined Google EUR 2.42bn for allegedly abusing its monopoly position regarding being a search engine.

Having reflected on the matter, I see no rational basis for the EC’s position, whether it be a legal basis, economic basis or political basis.

As the EC’s press release says, Google has used its search engine functionality to scrape shopping deals and present it on its “shopping” tab of search results.  The EC believes that it promotes products that Google is paid by its customers (i.e. advertisers) to promote, and that this is the basis of abusing the market.

The EC’s wonky thinking is (typically) at the outset.  The EC claims, “Google… provides search results to consumers, who pay for the service with their data.”

At first glance, there is a tempting academic merit in the EC’s flawed position.  But, actually, it is fatuous.  The consumer can only be said to “pay… with their data” if consumers are knowingly and consciously doing so.  Most consumers won’t and, even when prompted by Google to agree the terms of service, most consumers won’t care.  Consumers just want it to work, i.e. to deliver what consumers ask it for.

Consumers know that Google is an advertising agency, because the ads are clearly denoted on search results delivered on-screen to the consumer.  Indeed, the whole point of Google is for the consumer to pull in relevant advertising, and that by definition means two-way communication.

Therefore, the EC’s position is more than just flawed: it’s idiotic.  The EC seems to think that a bona fide approach by a consumer to the market requires the consumer to be absolutely dead silent about what they want, and why.  Quite how the EC thinks consumers can negotiate even invitations-to-treat from Google’s search results while Google apparently gags the consumer is a mystery.  The consequence of the EC’s position is to undermine the consumer’s ability to exercise choice, rather than to bolster the consumer’s position.

The EC’s flawed position is also discriminatory.  The data that the EC claims Google “receives” from consumers includes the same dataset that mobile telephone providers get from their users on a continuous basis, e.g. location and data exchanged over the network.  Yet the EC isn’t fining the likes of Vodafone and KPN for abusing their market position for knowing the location of their consumer customers at the time the consumer customers use the phone for either voice, text or data services.  But, Google is apparently different.  For a start, it’s American.

The EC has so comprehensively missed the point of a retail consumer’s use of Google (and similar services from Microsoft and Apple) that Google has had to spell it out in simple baby language.

Google perceives the EC’s position to be that Google’s results should promote other search engines in preference to Google’s customers’ data/products/entries.  Google seems to think that the EC wants to see a text list of other search engines for consumers to try, promoted above all other content in Google’s search results.

I agree with Google’s analysis.  It underpins what I wrote above, that the consequence of the EC’s position is to undermine the consumer’s ability to exercise choice, rather than to bolster the consumer’s position.

For example, as a consumer, I choose not to use Bing, largely because I’ve never found Bing to be anything like as focussed on my shopping preferences than Google.  Because Google shares data with its customers (advertisers), Google learns my language more fluently, and gets me to the results I want.  I’d guess that Bing does the same thing as Google, but I’ve never received as focussed results with Bing than I do with Google, so I gave up on Bing.  Microsoft later bought Yahoo, which I always disliked using, because Yahoo seemed to be on some hell-bent mission to piss off its userbase (and therefore also its paying advertising customers) with dysfunctional software (botched-by-design).  That told me that Bing and Yahoo were going to merge, thus meaning that Bing was likely to get even worse.

What I absolutely don’t want is any search engine to tell me about other search engines that will invariably also fail to deliver what I want.  If I want to buy shoes, I want to see shoes, not other search engines (or any other poxy thing the EC wants me to read).  The only time I want to find other search engines is if I search for “search engines”.  I’d Google it.  Hell, I just have!  No sponsored results on Google (obviously), but for the purpose of this blog post, here is a summary of my findings.

Other search engines?

A quick review of one of those top five results was searchenginewatch.com (the “Page”).  So I clicked on that and started to read it.  But within 10 seconds, searchenginewatch.com interrupted me with spam: a dialogue box, “Get top insights and news from our SEO experts.”  Hmph.  Is there a polite response to this?  No, I’m afraid not.  My initial response was untypeable on this blogpost.

Ordinarily, I’d have immediately given up reading searchenginewatch.com, because I really dislike being rudely interrupted by spam - Google knows this, which is why Google doesn’t do it, which is probably something else the EC doesn’t like about Google (remember, the EC wants us to click pointlessly on webpages for something stupid to do with cookies) but for the purpose of this blog entry, I responded to searchenginewatch.com’s spam (“No thanks”) and read the rest of the page.

There is a search engine that hides your personal data, DuckDuckGo (wiki), whatever is meant by “personal data” in this context.  It’s also American, so no doubt the EC will target that one in due course, most likely for failing to record consumers’ preferences and consequently delivering spam and failing to obey the cookie law.

Quora (wiki) is a question-and-answer platform, rather than a search engine.  Users benefit from it by logging into it via… either Facebook or Google+.  No doubt the EC will wage a racially discriminatory trade war against Quora, too, in due course.

Another alternative avoiding Google, America and the EC seems to be the dominant Russian search engine Yandex (wiki).  A quick search for “european commission v google” returned a wiki page in first place (nb: the search was done in browser Google Chrome, which probably counts as irony, no doubt the EC will want to prosecute me personally for being a consumer that deviates from its preferred ideology).

As at 15Jul2017, the Page had 117 comments.  The latest entry from slugger_mcbuster of 2016 says it all:
“The trouble with the "alternate" engines is that they're either trying to use gimmicky interfaces and "specialty" results, and/or they're basically underpowered offshoots of Google as it is in its present semi-dysfunctional state (in some cases, they're even powered by Google).

“Bing as the first runner-up is horrendously bad, limited in scope and results, and has one of the most user-unfriendly, ham-fisted implementations you could possibly conjure up.”

The comments also reveal that too many people seem to think that Google’s search results are biased because Google doesn’t filter out “fake news” (i.e. findings that the user didn’t want to see).  I disagree that this is a fault of Google: all the search engine does is report the web address of publicly available text on the internet, typically listed in the order of how many clicks each link has attracted, and then promotes the pages which some advertisers have paid Google to promote.  I don’t think Google has never sought - and I hope shall never seek - to deliver a series of results that meet “truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth”, because that would make a search engine unworkable.

Two comments in particular reveal just how confused the masses probably are (and therefore how confused the EC arrogantly and deliberately chooses to be, to create politicised problems for no good reason).  One commentator, Floridian, asked what was meant by Google bias.  In response, Observer cited an example of Obama’s birth certificate, and H Long cited an example of researching the arguments for and against anthropogenic global warming.  We know from Twitter that today’s internet users are open to change, therefore more open-minded, more liberal/left-wing and more vocal than the more Luddite conservative types.  So it’s hardly surprising that Google’s search results will tend to promote liberal/left-wing opinions, because those will be the links that most of Google’s users will most often click on.  That is how Google’s algorithm appears to work!

Other commentators claimed Google needs competition, seemingly missing the point of the article on which they commented, which listed 14 competitors of Google… some of whom allegedly sub-contract to Google…. Oh dear.  There’s just no helping some people.

All the same, searchenginewatch.com proved very succinctly that there is no market failure, and no obstruction to consumers wishing to bypass an operator alleged to be abusing the market.  This means that the EC has no objective basis to intervene, even if asked to do so by an aggrieved party.

Searchenginewatch.com listed no non-American search engines.  So I did another search (on Google, using Google Chrome) for “European search engines.”  The top result was searchengineland.com, itself another American site, hosting an article from Bas van den Beld written in 2010.  Again, the site spammed me - after 60 seconds, better than only 10 second, but I’m still being spammed - but I persisted for the purpose of this blog entry.

Van den Beld listed only 5 search engines: Bing for UK and France, Yandex for Russia, Seznam for Czech Republic, Vinden.nl for Netherlands and - most alarmingly of all - Conduit for Germany and Spain.  Van den Beld cautions readers of this English-language webpage that each site shall follow the language of its core market; that some cases sub-contract to Google; that other sites exist in each country.  Again, it adds to the evidence to prove that there is no market failure for the EC to resolve.

Why is Conduit alarming?  Because between 2008 and 2011, I was an acting IT bod at work.  Conduit was the name of an app that behaved like malware.  It installed itself as a Windows app, being a payload from a browser action that also made Conduit the default search engine.  Users would complain that their machines were sluggish and occasionally, browser windows would just pop up without user request spamming the user with things they didn’t need, or even want to see.  If you do a Google search for “Conduit” - remembering that Google lists pages by the numbers of links clicked - you’ll see that the overwhelming majority of links on the first four pages are about the removal of malware.  Van den Beld listed Conduit.com as the search engine’s website; it is no more, and the domain appears to be have been bought by a different company selling something different.  No wonder in 2010 conduit.com had a big market share in Germany: the adware was probably doing stuff without its users’ permission!

Conclusion


Searchenginewatch.com demonstrates that there is no market failure in the search engine market, which means the EC has no basis to form an opinion, let alone to fine a single participant in the market.

Unfortunately, the EC seems to bear a grudge against the American companies that provide most of the digital services that consumers enjoy, both for free and for payment.  Microsoft has a comparable history with the same EC.

The moral of the story is that EC claims to be the champion of the consumer, but in this case is actually promoting the vested interests of spammers and other second-rate advertisers.  There is no way that the EC’s current line of persecution against Google could ever promote consumer interests.

The meta-moral of the story is that EC has had to invent, or misconstrue, concepts in law in order to abuse its power as regulatory enforcer, targeting American corporations for doing what they said they would do, but somehow not targeting European corporations for not doing what they said they would do.

I accept that Google is in a position to abuse its market position, but while it keeps on delivering the services that I use on a daily basis - at home and at work - why would I complain?

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