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Foundem claims 'diversionary straw man tactics'

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Foundem — the UK-based vertical search outfit involved in antitrust investigations of Google in both Texas and the European Union — has responded to Google's account of the Texas probe, accusing the Mountain View search giant of "diversionary 'straw man' tactics."

On Friday, a story from Search Engine Land revealed that the office of Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott is investigating Google over claims that it unfairly manipulated search results — and five minutes later, Google published a lengthy blog post that acknowledged the investigation, named the companies involved, and attempted to discredit their positions. Foundem was one of there companies named, and Google's description of the UK company and its complaint echoed a blog post from this spring in which Google revealed Foundem's antitrust complaint in the EU.

According to Google, Foundem claims that "Google’s algorithms demote their site because they are a direct competitor to our search engine." And Google questioned the "quality" of Foundem's site. "Various experts have taken a closer look at the quality of Foundem’s website, and New York Law School professor James Grimmelmann concluded, 'I want Google to be able to rank them poorly.'" (The hyperlinks are Google's).

Foundem declined to discuss the Texas investigation. But judging from our previous conversations with the company, Google has not properly represented their complaint. And a day after Google's blog post, Foundem published a post of its own. The company did not explicitly refer to the Texas investigation or Google's post, but it claimed that Google has generally attempted to divert attention from its arguments rather than address them head-on.

Foundem is fighting for what it calls "search neutrality," which — loosely speaking — applies the principles of net neutrality to search engines. "[Search neutrality is] the proposal that the same principles of transparency and non-discrimination be extended beyond Internet providers to search engines," Foundem says. "Neutrality concerns are particularly pressing in search, where Google’s 85% share of the global market places so much power in the hands of a single corporation."

The company is not arguing that Google should reveal its search algorithms. And it's not arguing against Google's right to make its own algorithmic decisions. It's arguing that in some cases, there are services — including Google's own services — that aren't subject to the same algorithmic treatment as others. It's arguing that Google's "Universal Search" setup — where certain Google services receive prominent placement on results pages — favors those services over competitors, and that certain other sites are on whitelists that give them preferential treatment.

"You have an overwhelmingly dominant search engine," Foundem CEO Shivaun Raff has told The Reg. "If you add to that that search engine's ability to apply discriminatory penalties — they're discriminatory because some services are manually rendered immune through white lists — and you add the ability of that search engine to preferentially insert its own services at or near the top of the search results, all of that adds up to an unparalleled and unassailable competitive advantage."

The company laid out much the same argument in its Saturday blog post. "With the introduction in 2007 of what it calls 'Universal Search,' however, Google began discriminating in favour of its own services, brazenly inserting them at or near the top of its search results for a vast and rapidly increasing number of queries," it says. "This strategy has transformed Google’s ostensibly neutral search results into a powerful marketing channel for Google’s own services."

Foundem is arguing that Google should not be allowed to discriminate in favor of its own services — i.e., its services should be subject to the same algorithms as others. And when Google does insert its own service, these should be clearly marked. "These should be clearly differentiated from real search results just as sponsored links are," the company says.

The company has also called on Google to provide more information about its use of whitelists, and to offer a standard way for companies to appeal when their site has been slapped down by Google's decision-makers. In 2006, an algorithmic change effectively removed Foundem from Google's search engine and all but prevented the company from purchasing placement via Google AdWords, and it took years to resolve the situation.

"Foundem’s [EU] complaint also addresses Google’s increasing use of arbitrary and discriminatory penalties, which, through error or design, exclude legitimate sites from search results, irrespective of their relevance," Foundem says. "Foundem proposes that search engines should be transparent about the rationale behind these penalties and that affected sites should have access to a timely and transparent appeals process, so that penalties applied in error can be quickly rectified."

Google likes to answer antitrust claims by saying that competition is "just one click away." But Foundem takes issue with this. "Unfortunately for Google, its 'just-a-click-away' mantra does nothing to diminish its responsibilities as a monopoly. It merely underlines the unusual extent to which Google is dependant on preserving its benevolent and increasingly ironic “don’t do evil” public image," it said.

"Given the absence of healthy competition among search engines and the extraordinary control that search wields over the digital economy, there is an urgent need to address the principles of search neutrality through substantive discussion, anti-trust enforcement, and careful regulation. Google’s diversionary ‘straw man’ tactics must not be allowed to stand as a substitute for informed debate."

Foundem's EU complaint was revealed on February 24. And in early July, EU commissioner Joaquin Almunia said that he was "looking at the allegations very carefully." ®

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