Is this how it begins?
A handful of small companies crushed by a technology giant file David v. Goliath unfair competition lawsuits. A leading Silicon Valley antitrust expert lends his legal brains to the seemingly hopeless cause. Soon, a company that thinks it is all powerful and can do no wrong is forced to face up to the reality that it does not play well with others.
That’s the story in a nutshell of the once-unimaginable drama of a decade ago that ended with a federal court’s landmark antitrust ruling against Microsoft. But it’s also starting to look like the story of Google.
Gary Reback, (at Podium) who led the initial legal attacks on Microsoft that resulted in the Nov. 5, 1999, antitrust verdict against the software giant, made that intriguing observation at a recent Consumer Watchdog news conference in Washington as he endorsed calls by Consumer Watchdog for a U.S. government antitrust investigation of Google.”The allegations against Google from my perspective are eerily familiar to me, because I saw all of them made against Microsoft,” said Reback. In particular, “this notion of favoring your own services and products,” he added. “Well, the allegation against Microsoft was they bundled and blended in their browser, and they favored that over competing browsers. And a case was brought, and it was won — on that very point.”
You can speculate all you want to about what Google is really up to in Mountain View, but it’s just speculation. “I mean, how would we know without looking?” asked Reback. “And the only people who can really look effectively I think are the United States government.”
Reback’s comments were in reaction to a call by Consumer Watchdog’s John M. Simpson (sitting, left of podium) for a full-fledged antitrust investigation of Google. “It is no longer enough for the regulatory agencies to be reactive,” said Simpson, who also sent a letter to the Department of Justice making the same case.
While there are many economic and technical arguments for a Google investigation, most compelling are some of the stories of small companies that were aired. Joseph Bial, (sitting, right of podium) an antitrust lawyer at Cadwalader, Wickersham & Taft, recounted the story of a small but fast-growing website called TradeComet that was a big Google customer until Google mysteriously changed its rules in a way that resulted in a nosedive in TradeComet’s traffic. While no one little company like TradeComet can be viewed as real threat to Google, Bial noted that there seem to be many such examples. “These sites, although they are small, as a collective they are a threat to Google, and I think Google perceives that,” he said.
To buttress his point, Bial welcomed some familiar faces attending the press conference.
“I want to give particular welcome to Google’s attorneys on the two cases I represent, who are also in the audience.”
Another Google partisan in attendance was Ed Black of the Computer and Communications Industry Association, a much-liked veteran of the DC tech scene. “A lot of the conduct being ascribed here to Google is legal conduct,” argued Black from the audience, who Reback noted has sided with Google in the past. (Black noted that he also represents many of Google’s competitors.)
The other victim who spoke was mobile entrepreneur Simon Buckingham (sitting, left end of table), who like an increasing number of critics claims Google manipulates its search results. “The neutrality of the search results are completely compromised,” he contended. Like others, Buckingham sees literary elements to the Google story. “It’s kind of sad really, I think it’s kind of like a modern Shakespearean tragedy.”