"Do as I Say, Not as I Do"

The “evidence paints a complex portrait of a company working toward an overall goal of maintaining its market share by providing the best user experience, while simultaneously engaging in tactics that resulted in harm to many vertical competitors.”

That quote from an actual Federal Trade Commission report might sound like a reason for imposing strong network neutrality rules.

Extracted from a 160-page FTC report, the conclusion does not, in fact, refer to any ISP, or any content slowing, blocking or acceleration.

It refers to Google, the company whose mantra used to be “don’t be evil,” and what the report says were efforts by Google to use its monopoly power to quash competitors.

Ironically (or maybe worse, perhaps it is venial), the antitrust agency rejected the report’s conclusions and cleared Google of any wrongdoing.

To be fair, this illustrates a danger. For those of us who believe antitrust remedies always are possible when bad actors emerge in the Internet ecosystem, and for that reason no additional “protections” (more laws, more rules) are required, this represents a potential failure.

The FTC failed to follow through when its own studies suggested there was abuse of commercial power in the ecosystem.

On the other hand, despite the failure to act, the market itself seems to be moving clearly to reduce Google’s dominance in search (Facebook and others are shifting the “search” process away from Google).

An irony here is that Google might have been vastly more implicated in potential antitrust activity, on a broad scope, compared to the two documented instances of Internet service provider content blocking, both of which were quickly squashed by the Federal Communications Commission.

That is a precedent some will say shows the necessity of strong network neutrality rules. Others would say that if a problem did ever develop at scale, the FTC would have acted, and that the FCC acted in the past without any such rules.

Ironically, a company that has pointed to potential non-competitive behavior by others actually has engaged in such activity, on a broad scale, itself.

Google’s actions  likely helped to entrench monopoly power over search and search advertising,” the FTC report says.

The staff report from the agency’s bureau of competition recommended the commission bring a lawsuit challenging three Google practices. The move would have triggered one of the highest-profile antitrust cases since the Justice Department sued Microsoft Corp. in the 1990s.

The revelations will not be helpful to Google, which is fighting European regulators worried precisely about this sort of behavior.

FTC staff said Google’s conduct “helped it to maintain, preserve and enhance Google’s monopoly position in the markets for search and search advertising” in violation of the law.

An additional irony is that action might now be taken just at a point when Google’s dominance already is challenged by the shift to mobile content consumption, where “search” or “discovery” happens in different ways.

As the old adage suggests, it is a case of locking the barn after the horse has already gotten out.

Looking forward, one might argue Google already is on the strategic defensive, making any potential new restrictions a bit late, and likely unnecessary.

Still, some might note the irony.

Google might have actually engaged in widespread and arguably successful anticompetitive behavior, where ISPs already were covered by FCC no-blocking rules, and have actually never been shown to engage in “slowing” or “speeding up” content of competitors.

It's a blemish on the record of a firm whose products and inititiatives valued by so many, and brings to mind so many adages. "People who live in glass houses should not throw stones. "Do as I say, not as I do."
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