Google feeds regulators fresh meat to chew on

February 1, 2012

By Reynolds Holding

The author is a Reuters Breakingviews columnist. The opinions expressed are his own.

Google is feeding U.S. regulators fresh meat to chew on. Antitrust concerns have swirled around the Internet search giant for years. Now, changes to its data-sharing policies are causing added alarm among lawmakers. Google hasn’t yet crossed any major legal lines but seems destined to find them.

The company responded on Tuesday to congressional questions about its plan to inform Google searches with data from sister sites like YouTube. In early January, the firm announced a separate initiative for including photos, posts and more from users of social networking site Google+.

The antitrust worry is that Google is flexing its roughly 65 percent market share in search to muscle out competitors in these other areas. A social networking or video site draws more attention if it’s the first – or only – one to show up in a Google search. It’s evocative of when Microsoft tied its Explorer browser to its Windows operating system, a move that came back to haunt the software giant.

But there’s a more apt comparison. Google was allowed to buy Internet travel programmer ITA Software – with a few restrictions – last April after regulators found no evidence the company would favor its own travel service in search results over rivals like Orbitz. It could be a blueprint for resolving any future antitrust concerns.

Of course, Twitter has already complained about tweets being harder to find in search results because of Google+. Facebook might one day be next. For now, government legal action doesn’t seem imminent. Other search engines like Bing are competitive and, at this point, Facebook probably doesn’t want Google crawling through its proprietary sites anyhow. Google also can make the case that linked offerings are better for users.

But each incremental step beyond search emboldens Google’s critics. Congress still suspects the new data-sharing policy encroaches on privacy rights. The Federal Trade Commission continues to investigate how Google ranks search results. And the U.S. Supreme Court acknowledged last week the dangers of gathering troves of personal data.

In 2010, then-Chief Executive Eric Schmidt declared that Google policy was to get right up to “the creepy line” but not cross it. Legally speaking, the company is getting closer.

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