The Information Age is here to stay. So too, apparently, is government's obsession with "management" of the Internet. The latest evidence is the Federal Trade Commission's decision to step up its antitrust investigation of Google for its "search results practices," which, according to accusers, overpromote Google's own initiatives.
Federal antitrust laws have been controversial since the "trust-busting" era more than a century ago. The concern has carried through to recent times as the feds have pursued high-tech firms like IBM (which endured a 13-year prosecution until the government dropped charges) and Microsoft (which was targeted at the behest of competitors' rather than consumers' complaints). History is repeating itself, as Microsoft and others have spurred antitrust authorities to hound Google.
It may be harsh to assume only questionable intentions from the FTC, but even a former prosecutor in the Microsoft matter believes the Google case lacks substance. In a story on eWeek.com, David Balto told a reporter, "If you don't like Google, it takes a click to go to Bing or Yahoo, and you have emerging competitors arising."
The American people certainly seem to agree with this assessment. An IBOPE/Zogby poll commissioned earlier this year by National Taxpayers Union found that 87 percent of respondents, across a wide demographic spectrum, felt they could easily switch to competing search engines -- and 79 percent thought the government should not regulate search engines.
Supporting that sentiment from the academic front are 101 prominent economists, who signed an NTU-led open letter to policymakers expressing concerns over the Google case, noting: "[T]he harm and uncertainty posed to businesses from excessively broad interpretations of antitrust laws are significant. These destructive and ill-fated actions imperil the economy at an especially delicate and pivotal point in its progress toward recovery."
With so many signs urging caution, it is not the Google "problem" that threatens consumers, but the FTC forging ahead out of bureaucratic inertia, a need to appear "relevant" in the online world, or some other reason known only to the agency.
Imagine searching for a new pair of sunglasses and not getting any shopping results back -- just a Wikipedia page on sunglasses, or perhaps the corporate sites for major brands, or even articles on the engineering of sunglass lens materials. Specialized searches that have developed over years, and through millions of user interactions, would disappear.
What could "fair search" rules do to something like security threats as a search engine's prerogative to prioritize results? It is hard to be certain, but with an arm of the federal government dictating practices for our most powerful information access tools, even restrictions on freedom of speech could become a simple matter of altering how results are displayed.
The politics could get ugly too. As in the past, those who can't perform more nimbly in the marketplace will be motivated to encourage government litigation against their rivals. Worse, the favor-trading could extend to basic business practices, such as lobbying to obtain some agency's blessing for the best search positioning.
Do you want to be able to choose the product that fits your needs, and have access to an industry leader? Or do you want a federal Internet czar to stop a company from serving you for some arbitrary reason -- such as the fact that said company is attracting too many customers?
Some may say this exaggerates what's at stake in the FTC's Google case. They may argue that this time, the government really is here to help. Hopefully, the millions of people who value their freedom online won't let this wolf through the door, or else it will surely help itself to even greater control of the Internet.
Doug Kellogg is communications manager and Pete Sepp is executive vice president of the 362,000-member National Taxpayers Union.