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Google’s Influence Over Its Network of Influencers

September 14th, 2017

With the looming public debate around Google’s recently filed appeal in the Google Search (Comparison Shoppping) case and, more importantly, around its soon to be disclosed remedy proposals, an understanding of the basic facts of the case may never have been so important.

With this in mind, here are our thoughts on the most recent revelations about Google’s network of academic influencers and surrogates:

We accept that many of the academics and other professionals within Google’s extensive network of influencers sincerely believe that their pro-Google opinions are their own and are not influenced by their (or their institution’s) financial ties to Google.  However, it is noteworthy how often these opinions are underpinned by an eerily consistent misrepresentation of the basic facts of the Google case that belies, at the very least, a failure to treat Google’s representations of the case with the healthy scepticism one would normally reserve for a defendant.

The criticisms of the EC’s Google Search verdict by Google-funded academics and think tanks have tended to rely on and mirror many of the same fundamental misrepresentations and omissions that Google’s own criticisms of the verdict rely on. For example:

- They tend to focus exclusively on Google’s anti-competitive promotion of its own services (through Universal Search), while ignoring Google’s anti-competitive demotions and exclusions of competing services (through anti-competitive penalties). This is an important omission because any defence of one practice inevitably undermines the defence of the other.

- They neglect to point out that pay-for-placement advertisements are not a substitute for the relevance-based search results they are anti-competitively replacing. This is not a minor omission: paid advertisements are not what users visit Google for, and, when they are used to promote the merchants willing to pay Google the most money for a click rather than those offering users the lowest prices, the resultant user harm is obvious.

- They ignore the inconvenient yet immutable fact that Google only introduced these pay-for-placement advertisements (which underpin all of Google’s misleading ad-based arguments) in February 2013—at least 7 years after the introduction of Google’s anti-competitive practices, 3 years after the start of the EC’s investigation, and 11 months after the commencement of “settlement” negotiations with Commissioner Almunia. (See our December 2016 Paper for some of the history, context, and consumer harm resulting from Google’s progressive blurring of the lines between search results and pay-for-placement ads).

The perception-shaping power of Google’s sophisticated and disciplined PR machine is far-reaching. For example, many commentators now routinely refer to the EC’s Google Search case as the “Google Shopping” case. But, as Google well knows, the EC’s case isn’t about “shopping”, or even about “comparison shopping”. It is and always has been about Google’s anti-competitive manipulations of its core search results.  What is true is that, for the time being at least, the Commission has chosen to constrain the scope of its formal charges and verdict to Google’s application of these illegal search-manipulation practices as they affect the comparison shopping market—i.e., where Google uses these practices to divert traffic and revenues to its own comparison shopping service (currently called Google Shopping) and away from competing comparison shopping services.

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