Google produces today’s most popular Internet search engine along with myriad other life-serving products (for example, I used Google Drive, a free service, to compose this article). Google’s owners own the company; “they built that”; morally, it is their property and their enterprise to operate as they see fit. And Google’s users and customers have a moral right to associate with the company on mutually agreed terms—or not to associate with it. If customers continue to appreciate and use Google’s services, the company will continue to succeed; if not, it won’t. Either way, how Google operates its business, and how and whether customers agree to use its services in accordance with Google’s terms, is properly up to them, not government.
But for years various government entities have sought to violate—and in some cases have succeeded in violating—the moral rights of Google’s owners to operate their business according to their own judgment. A recent CNET headline reveals the latest such assault: “European Parliament vote promotes idea of a Google breakup.” As Stephen Shankland reports for CNET, the vote in question, a nonbinding resolution, asks the European Commission to “unbundl[e] [i.e., to break up by government force] search engines from other commercial services.” (It is unclear precisely how and in what form such action might play out.)
Thomas Vinje, an attorney for a group of businesses seeking to convince government to take coercive action against Google, summarizes the main complaint against the company. In the search results Google shows, he told Shankland, it is “preferencing its own [services] and demoting others to restrict competition and favor itself.”
Google does in fact sometimes put certain search results at the top of the page in order to earn money or otherwise to promote itself. For example, when I search “vw,” the top two results are paid ads—clearly marked as such—for vw.com and for Colorado Volkswagen. When I search “csco,” the NASDAQ abbreviation for Cisco Systems, Inc., a link to Google Finance appears near the top of the page, as does a link to Cisco’s Google+ page. When I search “airline denver to san francisco,” one of the top links (marked “sponsored”) is to Google.com/flights.
Does Google’s placement of these results and ads somehow violate my rights? Do they violate anyone’s rights? Of course not.
When I use a Google service, I fully expect Google to run ads and to feature its own services, not those of its competitors—just as when I walk into a computer shop, I expect its salesmen to show me their computers, not the computers in a competitor’s shop down the street. That this practice on the part of Google is a target for political action is ridiculous.
Google is a private company, and it has a moral obligation to its stockholders to promote its own goods and services. So long as the company has not contractually agreed to promote someone else’s products or services, it has no moral obligation to do so—and should have no legal obligation to do so. If customers don’t like Google’s terms or practices, they are free to use any of Google’s competitors, including Yahoo! and Microsoft’s Bing. (As Thomas Claburn reports for InformationWeek, Mozilla is now working to provide alternatives to Google through its Firefox browser.)
Disturbingly, the parliament’s vote is just the latest volley of government attacks on Google. As Claburn reports, earlier this year the U.S. Federal Trade Commission forced Google into an antitrust settlement. (Among other things, the settlement forces Google to change how it operates its Adwords service so as to benefit “competing ad platforms.”) And the European Commission forced Google to make “several concessions” regarding “services such as Google Shopping on search results pages”—including forcing Google to “agree” to “advertise the services of three rivals in a fair [sic] manner”—as though “agreement” or “fairness” could be the result of pointing guns at peaceful producers and traders.
These government assaults on Google are vile, and citizens of the United States as well as of the European Union should demand that their elected representatives either put an end to them or find another job.