The road to antitrust is paved with good intentions

Google said Friday it has received a formal letter from the Federal Trade Commission notifying the company that an investigation of its business practices is under way, confirming rumors of an impending investigation that surfaced on Thursday in the Wall Street Journal (s nws). In a blog post responding to the FTC’s letter, a Google (s goog) executive maintained the search giant simply does its best to provide the best results for users, and that it doesn’t know what the FTC is after. But will this kind of gee-whiz, Little Orphan Annie act fly with the feds? Unlikely.

The blog post, by Google Fellow Amit Singhal — the head of Google’s core ranking team — seems designed to play up the innocence of the company as much as possible. It even has an almost aggressively inoffensive headline: “Supporting choice, ensuring economic opportunity.” It sounds like it was automatically generated using a selection of favorable keywords designed to promote positive feelings about Google’s mission (which for all we know it might have been). There’s more along those lines here.

As almost everyone knows by now, a big part of Google’s mission is “Don’t be evil,” and the blog post sticks tightly to this theme. Singhal argues that Google is focused on “putting the user first,” and it simply wants to provide relevant answers as quickly as possible, in a world where “the competition is only one click away” — a phrase that seems designed to respond to any potential questions about market dominance or monopoly, which are likely to be the core of any federal antitrust case.

It’s still unclear exactly what the FTC’s concerns are, but we’re clear about where we stand. Since the beginning, we have been guided by the idea that, if we focus on the user, all else will follow. No matter what you’re looking for — buying a movie ticket, finding the best burger nearby, or watching a royal wedding — we want to get you the information you want as quickly as possible.

In the post, Singhal reiterates several times that “using Google is a choice,” and says the company tries hard to be as competitive as possible by doing a number of things (the obvious implication being that some competitors don’t), including:

  • Provide the most relevant answers as quickly as possible. Singhal says Google is “always trying to figure out new ways to answer even more complicated questions” and advertisements “offer useful information, too.”
  • Label advertisements clearly. Google “always distinguishes advertisements from our organic search results,” the blog post says, and will “continue to be transparent about what is an ad and what isn’t.”
  • Be transparent. Singhal says Google shares “more information about how our rankings work than any other search engine.”
  • Loyalty, not lock-in. The Google post says the company believes “you control your data, so we have a team of engineers whose only goal is to help you take your information with you.” (This one is probably aimed at Facebook and its refusal to let you download your contact info.)

Despite all the warm feelings Google is trying to encourage, however, the reality is that by opening a formal investigation, the FTC is effectively saying that Google is being evil, even if only a little bit. And there’s one big issue Singhal doesn’t mention in his description of what Google does, which could become a crucial point in the federal government’s investigation, if it becomes an actual antitrust case: namely, that Google directs users to its own properties at the expense of competitors.

This kind of behavior may be implied when Singhal mentions that advertisements “are always labelled clearly,” since the links to the company’s own services (when you search for maps, for example, and get a link to Google Maps) are highlighted in yellow at the top of the page. But regardless, the company pointing people toward its own offerings — maps, image-hosting, and so on — has been a key part of many of the legal attacks and antitrust claims aimed at Google.

There may continue to be plenty of debate about whether “search neutrality” should even exist as a concept in the same way “net neutrality” does, but Google’s ability to effectively subsidize its own offerings at the expense of others is likely to be a central question for the FTC as it looks at the substance of competitors’ complaints. To pretend it’s not an issue probably isn’t the best strategy. And while the angel-with-a-halo act might be a great public relations move, it’s probably not going to win over anyone in Washington.

Post and thumbnail photos courtesy of Flickr users Alexander Boden and Mark Strozier