When it comes to search results returned by the world's largest search engine, businesses in all online verticals such as news or mapping have a right to be given just the same treatment as Google's own products - a right which Google yet has to recognise, argues online entrepreneur Marc Pinter-Krainer.
Online search has become as integral a part of the Internet as the physical network infrastructure, internet service providers, IP addresses and domain names. Search, as the most important discovery mechanism of all things online, is taken for granted as an indispensable part of the online grid on which all e-businesses and Internet services run. To illustrate this in numbers, more than 175 billion searches were carried out by users worldwide in December 2012. Two-thirds of these searches were handled by a single search engine: Google.
In many parts of the world, Google's market share is so high that one could argue that it owns and controls online search almost entirely. In the UK for example, Google's market share in search exceeds 90%.
There is nothing inherently wrong with a single company commanding a 90% market share, provided it does so responsibly and without turning this degree of dominance to its own competitive advantage. Unfortunately, Google consistently promotes its own services over and above those of competitors when it comes to how it displays search results. You see, Google has grown its business enormously to encompass not only the search engine for which it became known, but also products and services in a multitude of verticals such as mapping, news, videos, shopping, flights, and many more. It has done so by leveraging its unique position in handling the vast majority of all online searches in order to promote its own products - which, as recognised by European anti-trust law, is unlawful. Thousands of competing providers in those verticals have been squeezed out of the market by these anti-competitive practices, whilst Google has just become the world's largest technology company by enterprise value.
The European regulator has raised a number of concerns about Google abusing its dominant role in online search. EU Competition Commissioner Joaquin Almunia expressed his fear that Google is "abusing its dominant position" to monetise its news, mapping and shopping services. "My conviction is [Google] are diverting traffic," he said earlier this year.
Almunia gave Google an ultimatum. The Internet giant would need to change the way in which it presents its search results - such that fair competition is restored - or face antitrust charges which could attract a hefty fine as high $5 billion.
Since then, Google has submitted protracted proposals on how it intends to address the concerns raised. Google's proposals include changes to the way search results pages are displayed by including clearer labelling of Google's own services as well as the addition of links to rival websites such as alternative price comparison sites or mapping services. Evaluating these proposals, the European Commission has carried out a so-called market test, inviting rivals and online stakeholders to provide feedback on the likely effectiveness of Google's proposals. Including an extension of the deadline, the market test was set to end on Thursday, 27 June 2013.
During the market test, hundreds of online companies, press publishers and their trade associations, content creators and consumer groups have declared Google's proposals as incapable of having the necessary effect of restoring fair competition.
Thomas Vinje of the FairSearch coaltion, which amongst its members includes Tripadvisor and price comparison sites Twenga and Foundem, said "it would be better for the Commission to do nothing than to accept these proposals."
He made his comments during a press conference in Brussels Tuesday, during which six organisations including German broadcaster ProSiebenSat and UK-based mapping service Streetmap unanimously rejected Google's proposals as counter-productive and ineffective.
Having attended the event and listened to the arguments put forward by the panel of distinguished online providers, one common element has rung through again and again on my mind. Google's proposals - which in Google's own words are meant to be "doing a pretty good job" at addressing the EU's antitrust concerns - lack a fundamental concept: The right to equality.
"As a minimum requirement, Google must hold all services, including its own, to exactly the same standards, using exactly the same crawling, indexing, ranking, display and penalty algorithms," Helmut Heinen, president of the Federation of German Newspaper Publishers, said at the Brussels briefing.
I share this view entirely. Given the world's largest search engine is having to deal with an identity crisis arising from running its own businesses in verticals it is supposed to rank neutrally in its search results, the only way to restore fairness is to embrace equality as a fundamental right when it comes to how market competitors are treated in its results.
The proposed "remedies", as they stand, have no concept of equal treatment. So-called "rival links" accompanying a prominent display box containing a Google product are not equal a sign of equal treatment. In my view, Google will need to go back to the drawing board when it comes to considering its approach to restoring fair competition, and the first word on the board needs to read "equality".