Hi, folks. This is normally the time when we start buying candy corn for trick or treaters. But this year is horrifying no matter who comes to the door.
The Plain View
After years of investigations, hearings, and the rattling of legal sabers, we finally have a Techlash case: United States of America, et al. v. Google LLC. As I wrote earlier in the week, the government made a direct comparison to the Microsoft case two decades earlier, where it also invoked the trust-busting Sherman Act. In that litigation, the key issue was whether or not Microsoft leveraged its market power to jam its browser down the throats of users. Judge Thomas Penfield Jackson agreed with the government and ruled that Microsoft had abused its operating system monopoly.
But look at what happened next. Even though Microsoft lost its suit, its Explorer browser still dominated the market. It wasn’t until more than a decade later that a rival browser finally surpassed Microsoft’s product. That was Chrome, introduced in 2008 by, of course, Google. It wasn’t antitrust action that toppled Explorer, but a better option.
The current litigation focuses on search. (Another key component is Google’s licensing arrangements on the Android phone operating system, but search is involved in that, too.) Google might well use the Chrome example to argue that the same phenomenon could happen in search—a more innovative alternative knocks off the king of the hill. The Department of Justice would dispute that, charging that Google relies not just on the quality of its search engine, but plows some of its profits, and unfairly forces deals on phone manufactures, to unfairly block competitors. Among the ways it does this is spending billions of dollars to make Google search the default option in browsers like Safari and Mozilla. The DOJ is saying that without litigation, it’s inconceivable that anyone could take on Google in search.
Because of that, the argument goes, Google doesn’t have to worry about maintaining quality or continuing user-focused innovation in its search product. Indeed, for all the technology advances that we’ve seen in the last decade, particularly in AI, Google’s web search sometimes seems worse than it was some years ago. The famous “10 blue links”—the organic, unpaid results when you typed in a search query—are now almost buried in a Ginza-like display of ads, maps, and product recommendations. Antitrust expert Tim Wu wrote recently that Google gets away with this because it has vanquished any real competition.
Marissa Mayer, Google’s 20th employee who later went on to lead Yahoo!, once told me that for many years, Google would do a test: It would show a certain percentage of users a version of search with no ads, to see if people preferred a commercially pristine experience. The result, she boasted, was that users would consistently use the ad-supplied search engine more—they liked ads, and found them useful. When I asked Google if it still conducted this test, no one seemed to recall doing it in the first place. Which means, I guess, that they don’t do it anymore. If they did, I suspect the result might be different. (Google tells me that it does do tests in general to see if its ads are welcome, or whether they repel people.)
But if Google web search has deteriorated in quality (an assessment Google vigorously denies) that begs the question as to why competitors haven’t taken advantage. Certainly if Amazon or Facebook had created superior general interest search engines, they would have the wherewithal to pay Apple and others for placement. But after seemingly testing a run at Google, both have retreated. Amazon started a search company in the heart of Silicon Valley called A9, but it never developed a direct Google competitor. In 2013 Facebook introduced Graph Search, which seemed to have some advantages over Google search—namely, access to the social data on Facebook. But that experiment fizzled as well.
I suspect those giants backed down because they got the commercial results they sought through other means. There is evidence that people now use Amazon’s product search more than Google’s when looking for stuff to buy. And Facebook found that by using massive amounts of user data, it could understand people’s intent when they’re looking to buy something—a power once believed to only come from a search engine where people explicitly express their desire by typing in a search box.
The lesson is that web search, while still very powerful, might not be the only way into people’s pocketbooks. In fact, you can make a case that the DOJ is fighting on a battlefield that has already shifted. Search competition has spread to multiple fields of conflict including maps, voice assistants, and even automotive operating assistants. Google’s dominance in web search is less critical by that yardstick.
That doesn’t mean that the suit is ill-advised. Exposing Google search to more competition would benefit all of us. I’d be happy to see Google give up the default position on Apple Safari, Mozilla, and Samsung phones, just to give some other rivals a chance. In fact, I wouldn’t be surprised if at some point, Google settles this case, and that the end of paid placement will be part of the deal.
But no matter which way the suit goes—and since antitrust litigation operates at Bleak House velocity—the DOJ’s move this week hardly gets at the root of our Big Tech problem. That will only be addressed by sweeping legislation that focuses more on the protection of citizens than targeting companies that take advantage of our outdated regulation and laws. If there’s a way to do that wisely, I doubt that you’ll find the answer in a Google search.
In 2013, Facebook introduced Graph Search. My WIRED story on it focused on its potential, little of which was realized:
This launch version of Graph Search is only the beginning of a multiyear process of making search a key component of Facebook. “It’s really early,” Zuckerberg says. “There’s a huge amount of stuff that we obviously need to get to that isn’t in the first release.” One thing absent from the current iteration of Graph Search: ads. But they probably won’t be missing for long; search advertising, after all, is the web’s ultimate profit generator. [Coleader Tom] Stocky says that Facebook’s search effort is currently focused on users but acknowledges that advertisers will likely follow. “Right now our user experience on Facebook is a little passive,” he says. “Graph Search is a way to ask a specific question, to express an intent in some way. And, of course. an advertiser would want to target that intent. That’s what search ads are for.”
When I ask whether [Zuckerberg] thinks the number of search queries on Facebook might one day match those on the major web search engines—like Google—he does not flinch. “Hopefully, over time,” he says. “But we’re building this because we think it’ll be something that people want to use. There’s a lot of things we haven’t built yet. But I think even in the beginning, the experience is going to be, ‘Wow, this is amazing.’”
Ask Me One Thing
Andrzej asks, “Why is no one questioning China’s handling of Covid-19? It’s a question to journalists, not doctors or politicians. We know that China is the most populous country on earth and not really famous for information transparency. Am I missing something here?”
Thanks for the question, Andrzej. It is very difficult to discern the truth when governments cannot be trusted to give honest answers. When politicians are incentivized to lie, we can expect them to do so, especially when they suffer few consequences once their lies are exposed. If doctors sense they will be punished for telling the truth, only the bravest will speak up. As you note, it often falls to journalists to report what is actually happening. In China, thanks to journalists, we know that a doctor in Wuhan was silenced for telling the truth, and tragically, he died of Covid. We also can feel confident that claims in New Zealand and Taiwan of low death counts can be trusted, because reporting verifies this. As for China, I trust The New Yorker, which had an excellent story about what happened in Wuhan, and the current state of the disease there. (Spoiler: it’s a lot safer in Wuhan these days than it is in North Dakota.)