Microsoft-backed group goes after Google search, claims unfair competition

I'm having this strange feeling it's 1999 again, when Microsoft competitors ganged up to form or support so-called independent groups that cried monopoly abuse outside the courthouse and in the court of public opinion. Now it's a Microsoft-supported group doing the same, and to Google. Is this ironic or what?

When Microsoft was on the receiving end, it was all talk about competitors plying the legal system to make gains they couldn't in the marketplace. Now that the shoe's on the other foot, with Google leading in search and Microsoft trying to catch up, competition through regulation is okay.

Yesterday, the group, FairSearch.org, posted the above video about poor Bob. LOL, that makes me think of Microsoft's failed Bob user interface from the mid 1990s. Oh, was it a stinker.

A review of the org's website is revealing. Blog posts go back to Aug. 14, 2010, around the time the domain was registered, and every one is about Google -- or I should point out they're anti-Google. Meaning: Fair search is anything but Google search.

In searching the organization's blog, I was puzzled to find one referring to my "Can you give up Google?", although the FairSearch.org folks didn't find it until May.

Based on the member companies, which include Expedia, HotWire and Microsoft; timing of the domain registration and rhetoric of the materials posted, the group initially formed to oppose Google's acquisition of ITA Software. Now its focus is Google's investigation by the Federal Trade Commission and upcoming hearing before the US Senate -- on September 21. Both are opportunities to wave the Google-is-anticompetitive flag and seek to hog-tie the search giant like competitors of a different era did to Microsoft.

To be clear, Microsoft is not listed as a founding member of the group. FairSearch.org announced Microsoft's membership in mid-December 2010.

What is Choice?

"Based on growing concern that Google is abusing its search monopoly to thwart competition, we believe policymakers must act now to protect competition, transparency and innovation in online search", the group claims.

I have to laugh, recalling how often Microsoft lawyers and PR wonks claimed that businesses and consumers chose to use Windows. But from the FairSearch.org perspective, there's no choice about Google. It's true that Microsoft acquired its monopoly organically, and same can be said about Google. However, search is more a choice than was Windows, because of several factors:

  • During installation, Google Chrome offers choice of search engines
  • Users can simply type a new search engine into the browser address bar
  • There's no financial investment (buying hardware and software) -- search is free
  • Businesses don't lock IT infrastructure into Google search like they would Windows

"No one company should be allowed to use its dominance to foreclose competitors from the search marketplace", FairSearch.org claims. Well, hell, I've heard that before -- as accusation against Windows. So, what, the argument didn't apply to Microsoft when the shoe was on the other foot but it applies now? The organization has put together a sizable amount of material claiming consumer harm by Google search dominance.

One Reader's View

But something else sounds similar here -- Google's defense is eerily like Microsoft's, as I explained in June. To that post, reader Sean Murdock responded about consumer harm:

MSFT had 100 percent PC OS market share. There were no viable, well ressourced competitors. It designed in IE to displace Netscape while making it difficult to replace the product. Google doesn't come preinstalled as the search engine on almost any PC device and not even on some of the Android phones. It can be switched [by] changing the homepage or typing a URL without impairing the functionality of the device.

The context and competitive situation could not be more different. What we have here is a massive campaign by MSFT (under the guise of Fair Search) to prevent Google from attacking its Office franchise. MSFT, FB and NFLX are all attacking GOOG. I bet if you look at those companies lobbying expenses and fake grassroots organizations, you break some very interesting news... wonder how much resource they've focused on this effort rather than on creating a superior consumer value proposition?

Google has a business model that shares as large amount of the value directly with the consumer. There is no consumer harm in that.

He makes a good point about Microsoft, which motivations are likely different from other members offering pure search capabilities. Google's success in search tied to other services pose a competitive risk to Microsoft core products.

The problem I see: FairSearch.org calls for "transparency", but I don't see enough of it from the site. There's no address or phone number that I could find on the site or list of officers (turns out there is neither). I did track down a PR agency -- Glover Park Group, which work includes "government affairs and legislative strategy". That feels like lobbying to me.

I had a fairly heated discussion with the agency contact regarding transparency. He strongly argued that the group is very transparent. I should have had lunch before calling him. I would have been better mentally prepared for our, ah, combative talk. Perhaps a follow-up post is warranted on the Who's Who behind FairSearch.org and which is greater threat to competition -- Google or organizations seeking to have it regulated.

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