February 28, 2024

Google Takes the Hot Seat in Washington

“We get it,” Mr. Schmidt told the senators. “By that we mean we get the lessons of our corporate predecessors. We also get that it’s natural of you to have questions about our business.”

Google puts consumers first, he said, even if that means that Web businesses are upset about their search engine rankings. It emphasizes loyalty, not lock-in, he said, so users can easily switch to another search engine if they want to. Google uses open-source technology and is more transparent about how its search engine works than its competitors, he said.

Senator Herb Kohl, a Democrat from Wisconsin and chairman of the panel, said Google’s mission appears to have changed over the years, as it has acquired companies like Motorola Mobility and Zagat. Early on, Google’s “goal was to get the user off Google’s home page and on to the Web sites it lists as soon as possible,” he said. But critics now say Google favors its own businesses over others in its search results and other businesses like advertising and mobile.

“Rather than fairly presenting search results, these critics claim that Google has begun to subtly bias its search results in favor of its own services,” Mr. Kohl said. “This conduct has the potential to substantially harm competition for commerce on the Internet, and retard innovation by companies that fear the market power of Google.”

Wednesday’s hearing, held by the Judiciary subcommittee on antitrust, competition policy and consumer rights, was not intended as a step in building a case, but to raise policy questions and explore the arguments on both sides of the antitrust debate about Google, Mr. Kohl said in an interview before the hearing.

The hearing, which began at 2 p.m., is one of several ongoing inquiries into Google’s behavior, including a broad-reaching investigation by the Federal Trade Commission.

Antitrust scrutiny has intensified since Google has expanded into new businesses, like comparison shopping, local business reviews and travel search, where it competes with the same Web sites it indexes in its search engine.

The hearing was at times congenial — like when Senator Charles E. Schumer, a Democrat from New York, praised Google’s hiring and real estate investments in New York — and at times adversarial. Senator Mike Lee, a Republican from Utah, showed a chart that displayed the comparison shopping sites Nextag, PriceGrabber.com and Shopper.com with Google Product Search. While the other sites ranked anywhere from No. 1 to No. 50 in search results, Google’s own service was almost always No. 3.

“You cooked it so you are always No. 3,” Mr. Lee said.

“Senator, I can assure you we haven’t cooked anything,” Mr. Schmidt said, a bit testily. He said the chart was like comparing apples and oranges, because Google Product Search takes shoppers to a product while the other sites compare prices.

Senator Al Franken, a Democrat from Minnesota, began by proclaiming his love for Google, but then criticized Mr. Schmidt’s answer to a previous question about whether all search rankings result from an unbiased algorithm.

“You said, ‘I believe so,’” Mr. Franken said. “You seemed fuzzy. That really bothers me because that’s the crux of this, isn’t it? And you don’t know. So we’re trying to have a hearing here about whether you favor your own stuff, and you’re asked that question and you admittedly don’t know the answer.” After Mr. Schmidt’s testimony, three Google rivals will speak. They are Jeffrey G. Katz, chief executive of Nextag, a comparison shopping site; Jeremy Stoppelman, chief executive of Yelp, a site where users review local businesses; and Thomas O. Barnett, a lawyer for Expedia, the travel site. Susan A. Creighton, a lawyer representing Google, is also expected to testify.

“Google has enormous influence on consumers and businesses in America — how they find information on the Internet, what they see and the commercial choices they are presented,” Mr. Kohl said.

Google’s dominance of search and search advertising is not an antitrust issue, he said, but there is cause for concern if Google is abusing its market power.

“Does it bias its search results in favor of its own business offerings and services?” he said. “That’s the crux of what we’re looking at.”

Steve Lohr reported from Washington and Claire Cain Miller from San Francisco.

Article source: http://feeds.nytimes.com/click.phdo?i=ac5fe1531d394e5758a14ee73a582d61

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