The ABA Journal reported this week that Google was subpoenaed by the Missouri attorney general (Josh Hawley) for antitrust and consumer protection violations. Google has been placed on notice and the investigation is ongoing. Earlier this year, the Mississippi attorney general sued Google for similar violations and the European Union fined the company $2.7 billion for consumer protection violations. Are you seeing a pattern? Antitrust litigation against Google seems to be full speed ahead.
According to the article, the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) completed an investigation against Google in 2013. The FTC concluded, “We have not found sufficient evidence that Google manipulates its search algorithms to unfairly disadvantage vertical websites that compete with Google-owned vertical properties.” Evidently, Mr. Hawley does not agree with the FTC finding so he decided to investigate on his own.
When investigating and prosecuting cases involving sophisticated technology and antitrust issues, attorneys depend on experts to perform complex investigations and unravel complex issues. Who will the attorneys general and defense counsel turn to in support of these involved matters? Let’s take a look at the issues:
Antitrust / Consumer Protection:
To understand more about the laws governing antitrust issues in the US please visit the FTC for a brief summary.
Essentially, United States antitrust law is a collection of federal and state laws regulating the conduct and organization of businesses, generally to promote fair competition for the benefit of consumers. As the FTC page indicates, there are three main laws covering antitrust behavior: the Sherman Act 1890, the Clayton Act 1914 and the Federal Trade Commission Act 1914. For more than 100 years, “The antitrust laws have had the same basic objective: to protect the process of competition for the benefit of consumers, making sure there are strong incentives for businesses to operate efficiently, keep prices down, and keep quality up.” The laws also basically prevent collusion or cartel-like practices and monopolies.
The Missouri attorney general has said, “There is strong reason to believe that Google has not been acting with the best interest of Missourians in mind.” It appears the Mr. Hawley believes Google is doing things which are not promoting, and possibly impeding, fair competition. Further, their algorithms may be directing users to Google-owned properties rather than websites offering services which compete with those Google-owned properties. As Google is the 800 pound gorilla when it comes to Internet searching, any tactics directing users to their own goods or services could be considered a restraint of trade.
In order to prove Google manipulates algorithms for their own benefit, the Missouri attorney general is probably going to have to employ some expert consultants who may later testify as expert witnesses. Google’s defense counsel will probably have to do the same. I assume Google will have many of the pre-litigation consultants in-house.
During the investigation, Mr. Hawley will likely need to consult with antitrust and antitrust economics experts to determine if actions by Google are negatively impacting consumers or restraining trade. Furthermore, he may need to employ consultants to conduct market research to have statistical evidence of the impact on consumers.
Most of us (is this too presumptive?) have some sort of rough idea about search algorithms and what they accomplish. We understand it to be a mathematical equation used to search data and deliver a result based on the search terms we utilized.
After reading my last paragraph, I have to say there are probably far more accurate and simplistic descriptions of an algorithm. I may not have properly described how they work. That’s because I’m not a computer scientist. Luckily, neither the prosecution nor defense will be calling Nick Rishwain as an expert witness in Missouri v. Google.
The legal representatives from both sides are going to need assistance in understanding search algorithms and how algorithms might be manipulated by Google. They are going to need to know this quite early in the case in order to request and deliver the proper documentation during the investigation and discovery stages should Missouri file a lawsuit.
Both sides will likely need the assistance of information and Internet technology consultants. More specifically, I can see the need for information science & architecture experts as well as search engine optimization experts.
As the ABA Journal article made abundantly clear: Google has faced many legal actions related to antitrust and it appears even more legal actions lie ahead. It should be noted that Google is not alone in this area. There appears to be increased chatter about antitrust actions against Amazon as well. If the US Department of Justice and the Federal Trade Commission avoid taking action, we may see more attorneys general choosing to investigate and possibly prosecute the corporate giants for dominating the market.
For more information, check out the Experts.com Antitrust Articles section.