Collaboration investigate

Will FTC derail Larry Page's supersized ambitions for Google?

The FTC is about to launch a probe into Google's business practices. Learn how the inevitable government scrutiny could inadvertently assist new CEO Larry Page.

For me, the primary characteristic of Google CEO Larry Page is ambition. I can thank Steven Levy and his book In the Plex for that. In Levy's insider account of Google we learn about a Larry Page who came to Stanford with ideas so big and bold that his academic advisors referred to them as "outlandish" and "more science fiction than computer science." Page personally drove home to Levy that he's surprised people aren't being more ambitious in this amazing new era because there are unbelievable possibilities that have never existed before. That tells you a lot about the kind of company Page wants to build at Google in the years ahead. He wants to take "moonshots" like Google Books and self-driving cars.

With over $35 billion in cash to invest and an army of the world's smartest scientists and computer engineers on its payroll, Google is well positioned to chase a lot of those big opportunities. It's unlikely that competitors such as Microsoft, Apple, Amazon, or Facebook will derail Page's ambitions. But, something that could wreck Page's far-reaching plans is a major run-in with the U.S. government.

Such a run-in may be imminent. Google has confirmed that the Federal Trade Commission has launched a probe into Google's business practices. We'll hear more about the extent of the FTC's investigation in the coming weeks and months, but if this turns into a full-blown trial then it could hamper Google from stretching its hand into new fields of human knowledge and progress. If you want to see the kind of effect a government antitrust suit can have, take a look at Charles Cooper's reflection on similar suits against IBM and Microsoft.

Eric Schmidt, Larry Page, and Sergei Brin pose in one of Google's self-driving cars. Credit: Google

The fact that Google is finally attracting serious attention from government regulators and lawmakers in its home country shouldn't come as much of a surprise. In fact, the bigger surprise that it's taken the U.S. government this long to get interested. After all, Google has amassed what is arguably the greatest trove of electronic data in human history, including a ton of private information on citizens who have little idea about just how much Google knows. Plus, with Google.com serving as the Internet's default home page, the company is in an unprecedented position to abuse that power by directing search results toward its own products in favor of its competitors. That search monopoly looks like it will be the focus of the current FTC probe.

Whether or not the current investigation clips Google's wings, I expect U.S. government intervention into Google's business practices to be an unavoidable inevitability in this decade. There's ultimately going to be too much fear over Google's search monopoly and its data power, and too many opportunities for Senators to grandstand and act like they're standing up for the little guy.

It's going to happen and it's likely going to put a damper on some of Page's plans, due to either fear of further brush-ups or because of agreements with the government to constrain itself and self-regulate. The bigger question is whether that could inadvertently turn into a good thing for Google. The company has shown itself unable to focus and powerless to enforce quality standards in its products in recent years. Jean-Louis Gassée attributes this to Google's "Strategy of Everything" saying, "The need to be 'all services to all people' exposes the company to sloppiness and to silos, to UI by and for engineers, to 'featuritis', to products that don't interconnect." Gassee also remarked, "For all Google's 'Don't Be Evil' motto, the company has now reached a point where the more it excels, and it often does, the more it is perceived as a threat by individuals and governments around the world."

Page's ambitious plans to expand Google far beyond search, Internet advertising, and the Web itself could accelerate Google's "Strategy of Everything," but would also offer new opportunities to abuse its search power and invite additional government scrutiny. A reigned-in Google could re-focus on its core mission "to organize the world's information and make it universally accessible and useful."

There's plenty left to do on that ambititous goal, and a Google that acts in good faith on Internet search and user privacy could still pursue it with all due haste. That's not as flashy as windmills and self-driving cars, but it could keep Google's eye on what is still a very big prize.

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About

Jason Hiner is the Global Editor in Chief of TechRepublic and Global Long Form Editor of ZDNet. He is an award-winning journalist who writes about the people, products, and ideas that are revolutionizing the ways we live and work in the 21st century.

14 comments
noslenac
noslenac

Up until the last couple of weeks, I used Google everything. Google apps, Google search, Google reader, Gmail, etc. The more I research their networking practices, the further away I get. None of there stuff is what it used to be. Socialism doesn't work and Google is rapidly trying to demonstrate that. https://www.duckduckgo.com/ Check it out. It's great and it doesn't track anything. Just my two cents.

aflynnhpg
aflynnhpg

The Federal Trade Commission should only be allowed to conduct the probe using "Bing" search tools to conduct online search's supporting their investigation. It just doesnt' seem fair to let them "Google" Google and use it against Google.

onthego
onthego

I remember when AT&T was forced into a split. Why not Google cut the government off by splitting themselves up (especially if they are already siloed) before the government gains political capital off of them. A few years down the road, they can then acquire and become more of a monopoly than they were before!

sperry532
sperry532

At the company continues to expand its interests and put more fingers in more pies, Google's main product, search results, are less and less accurate and relevant to the consumer. At their current rate of expansion and overreach, it will only be a few more years before it becomes a lumbering behemoth, producing lots of products, most of which will be inferior quality and little use to the average person. Now would be a great time for a new, laser-focused websearch product/company to jump in and steal Google's main asset: their search engine users.

triplebeep
triplebeep

While I think they NEED to come down on Google, I just don't see it happening during the current administration. Eric Schmidt is still on the Presidents advisory council, after all. They did zip-zero with the Google street view (steal my wi-fi) incident in the US, other than saying Google needs to consent to an 'independent' privacy review every 2 years. Oh no, not that. The only reason they hit them on the google buzz incident was because it showed how the administration was conspiring with them - http://www.consumerwatchdog.org/newsrelease/white-house-reprimands-ex-googler-after-consumer-watchdog-foia-request.

BFDonnelly
BFDonnelly

Unfortunately, the FTC doesn't have the concept of structural separation down, at least not in the UK sense. It's the best solution for this circumstance.

webbr1
webbr1

...and I'm here to help. Enough said. LOL

premiertechnologist
premiertechnologist

Yet another expensive governmental boondoggle. Honestly. Return vs investment? Not there. What's the point? As for patent violations: Patenting software is just stupid and silly -- it should never have been allowed. After all, didn't the head of the Patent Office say there was no more stuff to invent in 1899 and the office should just close? Another bright moment in stellar Federal Government History.

Gis Bun
Gis Bun

It's about time the FTC went after Google for it's questionable practices. Street view. Ad/marketing practices. Whether they favor ads from those who pay more. Google has been sued left and right for copyright infringments. they think they can use others' technologies without paying licenses. Capitalism is one thing but not if it's done illegally. BTW, the European Commission are after them as well. So it's not just the US feds.

srr
srr

Google can accumulate information much more efficiently, at a lower cost, and with greater accuracy than the government. The "Feds" would be well served to fact check with Google before they do or say anything about anything. At least with Google we know where we stand--a for profit looking for profit. I think that is called CAPITALISM.

adornoe
adornoe

and if big government is going to do anything about Google, it's to use Google as it's data-gathering and data-mining arm. Government already does that, and using Google would add a complimentary service to government's role, but, in the case of Google, government would have access to what people are interested in on a daily basis. The FTC investigations will not amount to much, especially when they could easily point to Google's search marketshare being "only" 65-70%, while Microsoft has most of the leftovers. Furthermore, in the case of Google, it wouldn't be about the company having a monopoly, and it would be more about "illegal" business practices.

adornoe
adornoe

in their investigation? The feds need to figure out a way to investigate whatever Google tools are available in order to catch Google in illegal activities. The Google search engines is one of Google's tools. What you suggested would be equivalent to conducting an audit of Google finances by examining Microsoft's finances. . Besides, Google would be equipped to "notice" a series of hits on certain aspects of their businesses, and could tamper with those investigations or block them.

bboyd
bboyd

All the NSA has to do is outsource a little to some "Advertising companies". I just don't think the government will do much more than grandstand. Its not like they did much to MS. The current administration is using the Census to do data mining so I'm assuming they would appreciate some increased cooperation from the "don't be evil" company. edit for spelling "tehy" gawdaweful!