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Google's Search Results Concern Religious Broadcasters, Antitrust Subcommittee

Google's Search Results Concern Religious Broadcasters, Antitrust Subcommittee

Google’s anti-competition practices are a cause for concern for the Senate’s Antitrust Subcommittee and the National Religious Broadcasters, which claims the search engine is violating free speech.

Sens. Herb Kohl (D-Wis.) and Mike Lee (R-Utah), both members of the Subcommittee on Antitrust Competition Policy and Consumer Rights, urged the Federal Trade Commission in a Monday letter to investigate Google Inc.’s practices regarding competition.

The letter expressed concern that the search engine has switched from simply identifying Web pages that are most relevant to users’ queries without bias to producing results that blatantly favors its own products.

The letter also noted that Google may be slapping search penalties on websites that compete with its products, drastically lowering where links to these websites are found on its results list.

Although Lee and Kohl do not make any assertions as to the legality of the company’s business practices, they noted that Google dominates the market by a large percentage (65 to 70 percent of all computer based Internet searches and 95 percent of mobile Internet searches).

Google Executive Chairman Eric Schmidt also admitted in the Antitrust Subcommittee’s September hearing that the company was in the “area” of monopoly status. The concession was taken back in written statements.

“Given Google’s dominant market share in Internet search, any such bias or preferencing would raise serious questions as to whether Google is seeking to leverage its search dominance into adjacent markets, in a manner potentially contrary to antitrust law,” the letter stated.

The National Religious Broadcasters has been it monitoring the Senate Antitrust Subcommittee’s inquiries with great interest.

“If monopoly is bad for America and antitrust is something they take seriously, they ought to take freedom of expression much more seriously than the possibility of a monopoly power,” Craig Parshall, NRB’s senior vice president and general counsel, told The Christian Post.

“In our analysis, monopoly power … is not just damaging from an antitrust standpoint, it creates a higher risk of censorship because those companies that have monopolistic power are free to arbitrarily deny content or viewpoints that they don’t like.”

According to a September NRB report titled “True Liberty in a New Media Age,” Google has done just that.

Specifically, Google denied The Christian Institute in England from buying advertisement on its search engine in 2008. Google representatives refused on the grounds that its “policy did not permit the advertisement of websites that contain ‘abortion and religion-related content.’”

It later relented after the institute sued under Britain’s Equality Act.

In March 2011, the search engine established guidelines excluding churches, faith groups and any organization that comments on religion or sexual orientation from receiving free or discounted use of the “Google for Non-profit” Web tool. Other nonprofits were allowed free and discounted use.

“If Google were a public institution, it seems clear that its denial of benefits to churches and other faith groups based on their religious viewpoint would violate the First Amendment under a 1995 Supreme Court decision,” the NRB report noted.

Google’s actions are specifically hurtful because the spurned religious groups have little other options for their business.

According to metrics firm StatCounter’s recent figures on search engines’ market share, companies Yahoo, Bing, Ask Jeeves and Baidu received about 10 percent of the global Internet search market from March 2009 to August 2009 while Google enjoyed 90 percent.

As a result, the NRB created the September report in the hopes of reaching out to Congress, Google and other offending companies for solutions.

The letter did not cite the NRB’s report, nor did it comment on religious free speech. However, Parshall said many U.S. lawmakers have been asking for the report. He also said the subcommittee’s current antitrust investigations are indirectly tied to its cause.

“In a healthier, more competitive environment … it’s our belief based on history increased competition increases the likelihood that freedom of expression will flourish,” he stated.

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