At a hearing dedicated to "Examining Self-Preferencing by Digital Platforms," Luther Lowe, Yelp's senior vice president of public policy, laid out the company's long-standing claims against Google. Yelp, which delivers local search results for consumers looking for restaurants or other businesses, has persistently complained that Google favors its own products and services in search, often at the expense to consumers in terms of quality.
Now, Yelp isn't the only one paying attention. Regulators and lawmakers across the political spectrum are raising concerns about the power Big Tech companies wield over competitors who also rely on their services. Tuesday's hearing was another demonstration that Yelp's complaints are finally resonating in the U.S. as lawmakers introduce new policies and ramp up oversight.
Google didn't always try to stifle competition, according to Lowe, who acknowledged co-founder Larry Page's 2004 claim that, "We want to get you out of Google and to the right place as fast as possible." But Lowe said Google's approach later shifted from this model around 2007 when it added answer boxes or "OneBoxes" that surfaced what Google seemed to determine would be the most relevant result for a user.
Because Google displayed the answer boxes at the top of search results, Lowe argued in his prepared testimony, "it had conditioned consumers to expect for the best or most relevant results from around the web — even though they no longer were. By doing so, Google physically demoted non-Google results even if they contained information with higher quality scores than the information Google." Some of those non-Google results included Yelp, which Lowe said gets about 80% of its web traffic from Google.
"We build Google Search for our users," a Google spokesperson said in an emailed statement. "People want quick access to information and we're constantly improving Search to help people easily find what they're looking for — whether it's information on a web page, directions on a map, products for sale or a translation."
The Federal Trade Commission previously investigated Google's search engine, concluding in a 2013 statement that "Google's display of its own content could plausibly be viewed as an improvement in the overall quality of Google's search product. Similarly, we have not found sufficient evidence that Google manipulates its search algorithms to unfairly disadvantage vertical websites that compete with Google-owned vertical properties." Documents later leaked to the Journal showed FTC staff had recommended bringing a case against Google, however.
Lowe said the FTC's 2013 decision "has not aged well."
"Antitrust law does not permit Google to hide behind one defensible product decision (such as the introduction of OneBoxes, generally) to shield its entirely separate, and anticompetitive, deceptive self-preferencing (such as excluding rivals from the OneBoxes)," Lowe said in his prepared testimony.
Subcommittee Chairman Mike Lee, R-Utah, appeared the most hesitant of the senators present about imposing greater regulation on tech companies, saying he was concerned "we might overshoot the mark."
"We also cannot fall prey to the mentality that treats big as categorically bad," Lee said in his opening remarks.
Lee asked Lowe how traffic from Google to Yelp has changed over time. Lowe said it's remained relatively stable at about 80%, but that the number to track is the total amount of search result traffic that is directed outside of Google. He claimed the "majority of traffic going to Google either terminates on Google or it goes to Google secondary pages."
In his opening statement, Lowe said, "Google grew on the promise of a web-shaped Google, but instead, we got a Google-shaped web, to everyone's detriment."
Some senators on the committee came out with their own remedies to tackle Google and other Big Tech companies on the same day as the hearing.
Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar, the top Democrat on the subcommittee, introduced a bill Tuesday that would prohibit "exclusionary conduct" that risks harming competition and shift the burden of proof in merger proposals onto dominant companies to show their deals would not be anticompetitive. Democratic Sens. Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut and Cory Booker of New Jersey are co-sponsors.
Blumenthal and Sen. Josh Hawley, R-Mo., who both sit on the antitrust subcommittee, urged Attorney General William Barr Tuesday to examine Google's dominance in search in its ongoing investigation. The Senators expressed concern about the Department of Justice limiting theories of harm to Google's advertising business, citing a February Wall Street Journal article that described an internal focus on Google's ad technology.