Google’s business model ‘is the problem,’ David Cicilline says

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During Wednesday’s tech antitrust hearing, Rep. David Cicilline (D-RI) tore into Google CEO Sundar Pichai over the company’s dominance in search and its use of data to monitor would-be competitors.

“It is Google’s business model that is the problem,” Cicilline said, alleging a pattern of anti-competitive behavior that allowed Google to grow while smaller businesses were crushed. “Our documents show that Google evolved from a turnstile to the rest of the web to a walled garden that increasingly keeps users within its sites.”

Cicilline cited specific emails from “over a decade ago” between Google employees discussing sites that were growing and traffic. Employees “started to fear competition from certain websites [and] web pages that could divert search traffic and revenue from Google,” Cicilline alleged.

For years, companies like Yelp have accused Google of stealing their content in search, diverting clicks from their own sites and onto Google’s. According to Cicilline, the committee’s investigation shows that when Yelp raised these concerns with the company, Google threatened to delist the website unless it was allowed to scrub its content.

“Isn’t that anti-competitive?” Cicilline asked Pichai.

Pichai did not outright address the competition concerns, responding, “When I run the company, I’m really focused on giving users what they want. We conduct ourselves to the highest standard.”

Google is already under several formal antitrust investigations by law enforcement. Both the Justice Department and a coalition of state attorneys general are engaged in probes of the tech giant, and California opened its own antitrust investigation into the company earlier this month.

Cicilline specifically cited interviews with small businesses and emails between Google employees that suggest that the company uses insights from surveillance over web traffic to identify potential competitors and that it boosts its own sites and products in search.

“These documents show that Google’s staff discussed ‘the proliferating threat’ that these web pages pose to Google. Any traffic lost to other sites was a loss in revenue,” Cicilline said.

On Tuesday, The Markup released a report suggesting that Google prioritizes its own products and services in a significant portion of links on the first page of search results.

The latter half of Cicilline’s questioning homed in on Google’s surveillance abilities over web traffic to identify up and coming competitors. Cicilline asked outright, “Did Google ever use its surveillance over web traffic to identify competitive threats?”

Pichai did not deny the allegation directly. “Congressman, just like other businesses we try to understand trends from, you know, data, which we can see, and we use it to improve our products for users.”

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