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FTC Probes Google-Waze $1.1 Billion Deal After Consumer Watchdog Cites Antitrust Issues

3:40 pm in Uncategorized by Consumer Watchdog

FTC BuildingLess than two weeks ago after Google said it was buying Waze, developer of a mobile mapping application, for a reported $1.1 billion, the Federal Trade Commission has stepped in and said in effect, “wait just a minute here.”

Word of the FTC’s antitrust investigation was originally reported over the weekend by the New York Post and later confirmed by Google. It came less than a week after Consumer Watchdog wrote the FTC and the Department of Justice urging them to reject the deal.

Both agencies have the authority to scrutinize acquisitions for antitrust concerns and it wasn’t clear which agency was likely to handle it.

I did the prudent thing and wrote both. It looks like the FTC is listening — or at least shares many of our concerns. The antitrust problems with this deal are blatant.

“Google already dominates the online mapping business with Google Maps. The Internet giant was able to muscle its way to dominance by unfairly favoring its own service ahead of such competitors as Mapquest in its online search results,” I wrote in my letters. “Now with the proposed Waze acquisition the Internet giant would remove the most viable competitor to Google Maps in the mobile space. Moreover, it will allow Google access to even more data about online activity in a way that will increase its dominant position on the Internet.”

Read the letter to the FTC here.

John SimpsonIronically, Waze CEO Noam Bardin has made one of the strongest cases against the deal. He publicly described Google as his only competitor at last May’s All Things Digital conference. He said, “What search is for the Web, maps are for mobile…We feel that we’re the only reasonable competition to [Google] in this market of creating maps that are really geared for mobile, for real-time, for consumers — for the new world that we’re moving into.”

“You should take Bardin at his word,” I wrote in my letter to the FTC. “Approval of the Waze deal can only allow Google to remove any meaningful competition from the market. It will hurt consumers and hinder technological innovation. If the acquisition comes before the you, I urge you to reject it in the strongest possible terms.”

The investigation has just started, but the FTC is clearly off on the right foot.

Posted by John M. Simpson, Director of Consumer Watchdog’s Privacy Project. Follow Consumer Watchdog online on Facebook and Twitter.

Google Ending Privacy Breach Consumer Watchdog Targeted in FTC Complaint

12:40 pm in Uncategorized by Consumer Watchdog

Google PlayGoogle apparently is ending an egregious privacy breach involving people who buy apps from its Google Play store using Google Wallet to pay. Consumer Watchdog filed a complaint to the Federal Trade Commission with a copy to California Attorney General Kamala Harris about what Google was doing. The complaint alleged that the Internet giant was violating its privacy policies and its “Buzz” consent agreement with the FTC.

Rep. Hank Johnson, D-GA, also questioned Google about what it was doing. Google was sending to apps developers the name, email address and address of people who bought apps on Google play. It tried to claim that the the information was necessary for the transaction, but that’s clearly not the case when talking about downloading an app from its app store. Neither Apple nor Microsoft provide such personal information about people who buy apps from their stores. Google’s response to Rep. Johnson, confirmed what Google was doing and actually showed it was unnecessary. Consumer Watchdog sent a second letter to the FTC with a copy to California Attorney General Harris when Google answered Rep. Johnson’s letter.

On Tuesday WebProNews and DroidLife reported Google was addressing the concerns on a new Wallet Merchant Center it is rolling out and no longer sending the personal information about apps buyers.

I’m glad the change is coming, but I’ve got questions.

What role did the Federal Trade Commission or the California Attorney General’s office play in this change? Why did Google only act when formal complaints were filed? Will there be fines?

John M. SimpsonGoogle has become a serial privacy violator. You’ll remember that new sooner was the ink dry on the “Buzz” consent agreement than it was caught hacking around the privacy settings on the Safari browser used on iPhones, iPads and other Apple devices. It ultimately cost Google a fine of $22.5 million, which is pocket change to a company that has annual revenue of around $50 billion. It’s like giving a $25 parking ticket to a person who makes $50,000 a year.

Google is simply figuring that fines are a cost — and a minor one at that — of doing business. In case you missed it, on Monday Germany hit Google with a $189,225 for the Wi-Spy incident where its Street View Cars sucked up emails, URLs, passwords, account numbers as they snapped photos around the world.

In describing the fine The New York Times‘ Claire Cain Miller wrote:

Regulators in Germany, one of the most privacy-sensitive countries in the world, unleashed their wrath on Google on Monday for scooping up sensitive personal information in the Street View mapping project, and imposed the largest fine ever assessed by European regulators over a privacy violation.

The penalty? $189,225.

Put another way, that’s how much Google made every two minutes last year, or roughly 0.002 percent of its $10.7 billion in net profit.
It is the latest example of regulators’ meager arsenal of fines and punishments for corporations in the wrong. Academics, activists and even regulators themselves say fines that are pocket change for companies do little to deter them from misbehaving again, and are merely baked into the cost of doing business.

The fact Google is changing Google Wallet’s practices makes it clear Google violated the Buzz Agreement. Google claims that it is taking privacy seriously now that it is operating for 20 years under the Buzz Agreement. It isn’t and the regulators aren’t holding Google’s feet to the fire.

The company’s executives need to be held to account in a meaningful way. I’ve always argued the way to get corporate executives’ attention is to hit them with jail time when they flout the law. It’s not going to happen here, but a meaningful fine for the second Buzz violation sure would be nice.

Posted by John M. Simpson, Director of Consumer Watchdog’s Privacy Project. Follow Consumer Watchdog online on Facebook and on Twitter.

EU’s Google Antitrust Deal Beats FTC, But Still Doesn’t Do Enough

4:26 pm in Uncategorized by Consumer Watchdog

European Union

Details of Google’s proposed settlement with the European Union to avoid antitrust charges have been leaking out of Brussels over the weekend. And while EU competition authorities appear to have accomplished more that the gentle tap on the wrist meted out by the U.S. Federal Trade Commission, the deal as so far revealed doesn’t do enough to end Google’s anti-competitive practices.

The provisions of the EU agreement still have to be publicly released, but based on what’s emerged so far, here’s the good news: Unlike the deal with the FTC, which wasn’t even a consent agreement, the EU is demanding that the settlement would be legally binding for five years. A third party would ensure compliance and Google would face fines of 10 percent of its global annual sales if it fails to keep its promises.
The bad news is that instead of requiring Google to change its algorithm and treat all services the same, the deal will apparently allow Google to continue favoring its own services in search results so long as it labels them as its own.

Google essentially has been using its dominant position as gatekeeper of the Internet to unfairly promote its own service at the expense of competitors and consumers. In Europe it has about 90 percent of the search market. In the U.S. it’s around 70 percent. About all this agreement appears to do is require Google to be transparent about the way it unfairly abuses its market position.

Indeed, labeling could actually leave the impression with some consumers that the Google-branded result was a better one, rather than one that received a better position because Google had its thumb on the scale.

Another problem with the deal is that it doesn’t seem to do anything to rectify the damage to the market that Google has already wreaked. I’d have thought some sort of disgorgement of the Internet giant’s ill-gotten gains would have been appropriate.

John SimpsonThe next step in the EU process is for the Google deal to be “market tested.” The competition authorities will make the settlement public and receive comments on whether it solves the problems or not. I suppose it’s possible there may ultimately be stronger sanctions than currently appear to be the case in what’s been leaked or that the authorities will do more after the “market testing,” but frankly I doubt it.

Bottom line: Google has had its wings clipped a little bit. Google will be legally bound to follow labeling rules in Europe for five years and have a third-party enforcer to ensure that happens. It also means that European search results will look different than in the U.S. unless Google decides to take the same approach here or someone forces the company to do so. That could happen. Several state attorneys general led by the Texas attorney general have an open antitrust probe. I’d hope that they would settle for nothing less than what the Europeans got.

And further down the road? Fairsearch Europe has recently filed another antitrust complaint with the EU accusing Google of using Android software “as a deceptive way to build advantages for key Google apps in 70 percent of the smartphones shipped today.” Now that mobile is becoming more important than the wired Internet, Google is flexing its muscles there. The more things change, the more they stay the same…

Posted by John M. Simpson, head of Consumer Watchdog’s Privacy Project. Follow Consumer Watchdog on Facebook and Twitter.

When In Doubt, Speak Out

2:25 pm in Uncategorized by Consumer Watchdog

A pro-consumer candidate to the Federal Trade Commission, who had the backing of the entire public interest community, really wanted the job. But this candidate didn’t want allies to go public for fear of alienating the White House. What happened? Today POTUS hosed us and gave the keys to the FTC to corporate attorney Edith Ramirez.

The lesson: if you want to speak for the public, you have to speak publicly.

It’s just too easy to get caught up in the quagmire of worrying about alienating powerful people. Back channels and back room are the domain of those who want to turn their back on the public, not advocates for the public.

And the lesson, which came in healthy helpings this morning, can even be lost on those of us who typically have no control of our tongues.

Consider Ron Shinkman’s remarkable report today in Payer and Providers about the pathetic record of California Department of Managed Health Care Director Brent Barnhart. We didn’t expect much from a former Kaiser lawyer Governor Brown appointed to regulate HMOs, but perhaps a healthy tongue lashing on the front end would have up-ended this record.

As Shinkman records:

Between 2009 and 2011, the Department of Managed Health Care issued nearly 1,000 enforcement actions against health plans, fining them nearly $9 million for a variety of misdeeds and demanding they take corrective actions to protect the interests of their enrollees.

But after Aug. 11, 2011, when Gov. Jerry Brown appointed former health plan lawyer and lobbyist Brent A. Barnhart to head the agency, enforcement actions dropped almost immediately. The DMHC issued only 74 such actions during the remainder of the year, compared to 433 in the portion of 2011 prior to his appointment – although an agency official said that number should be condensed.

In 2012, the DMHC issued 90 enforcement actions, well below its historical average dating back more than a decade. The most significant action of the year was taken not against a health plan, but against the Accountable Care IPA, a medical group that had been using non-physicians to make medical coverage determinations.

Jamie Court

Moreover, financial penalties levied against the plans dropped dramatically in 2012. Last year, $451,000 in fines were issued, or just over $5,000 per enforcement action. That’s a stark contrast to 2010, when $2.2 million in fines were issued, an average of more than $20,000 per action. In 2008, fines exceeded $18 million, which included several significant enforcement actions against insurers.

New rule, or old rule remembered: When in doubt, speak out.

Posted by Jamie Court, author of The Progressive’s Guide to Raising Hell and President of Consumer Watchdog, a nonpartisan, nonprofit organization dedicated to providing an effective voice for taxpayers and consumers in an era when special interests dominate public discourse, government and politics. Visit us on Facebook and Twitter.

Consumer Watchdog Asks FTC To Release Staff Report In Google Investigation

1:05 pm in Uncategorized by Consumer Watchdog

Says Action Necessary To Restore Faith in Agency As Effective Antitrust Enforcer

FTC

Consumer Watchdog today called on the Federal Trade Commission to release the 100-page staff report on the 19-month Google investigation as the only way to “restore a modicum of public trust in the Commission’s ability to serve as an effective antitrust enforcer.”

“I call on you to release the FTC staff report to help make clear what was behind the Commission’s otherwise unfathomable action,” wrote John M. Simpson, Consumer Watchdog’s Privacy Project director in a letter to Commission Chairman Jon Leibowitz and Commissioners Julie Brill, Edith Ramirez, Maureen Ohlhausen and Joshua Wright.

“Media reports suggest that the Commission’s tap on the Internet giant’s wrist was the result of a ‘calculated and expensive charm offensive,’ ” Simpson wrote.

Read Consumer Watchdog’s letter here.

“Put another way, by all appearances, the Internet giant played an insiders’ game and bought its way out of trouble,” Simpson wrote. “Perhaps, the Commission managed to ignore the charm offensive and decide the case on the merits. Sadly, we cannot know the true situation because we don’t have the details of the 19-month staff investigation.”

Consumer Watchdog’s letter quotes articles in Politico and The New York Times about the Internet giant’s $25 million lobbying campaign and its efforts to cozy up to the Obama Administration and other Washington insiders. “It was a multiyear campaign focused on this very moment, knowing as the company grew these issues were going to come up,” Alan Davidson, Google’s former top lobbyist, told Politico.

Read the Politico article here.

Read The New York Times article here.

The best course of action, Consumer Watchdog said, would have been to file an antitrust suit and bring the case to trial. All the evidence would have been part of the public record. In a November letter to the FTC Consumer Watchdog warned that a negotiated settlement would inevitably invite cynicism about the results.

Consumer Watchdog’s letter to the Commission today continued:

Opting to avoid a trial and filing a formal consent agreement would at least have required a complaint, spelling out the violation. Instead you have settled for promises from a company that has a demonstrated record of repeatedly breaking its word. And it’s not even clear what they did wrong.

Your only chance of re-establishing the FTC’s credibility on its handling of the Google investigation is to release the 100-page staff report about the inquiry. Releasing the report would put the Commission’s decision in context.

Moreover, the public has the right to know what the staff recommended and to understand the reasoning of the professionals who conducted the lengthy investigation and the quality of their work. It could be possible that the staff botched the investigation and you were left with no other choice. If the report contains Google trade secrets, they could be redacted.

FTC’s Settlement With Google Fails To End Key Abuse

3:22 pm in Uncategorized by Consumer Watchdog

FTC-Google

Department of Justice, State Attorneys General Must Press To End Search Bias

The Federal Trade Commission’s settlement with Google fails to end its most anticompetitive practice, Consumer Watchdog said today and the public interest group called on the Department of Justice and state attorneys general to press forward to end the Internet giant’s monopolistic behavior in search results.

“Google clearly skews search results to favor its own products and services while portraying the results as unbiased. That undermines competition and hurts consumers,” said John M. Simpson, director of the group’s Privacy Project. “The FTC rolled over for Google. They’ve accepted Google executives’ promises that they will change two practices without even requiring a consent agreement, but Google has a track record of broken promises. Don’t forget, this fall the FTC fined Google $22.5 million for violating its most recent consent agreement. Why would the FTC take Google at its word?”

The new Assistant Attorney General for the Department of Justice Antitrust Division, William J. Baer, should make Google’s abuse of search a top priority, Consumer Watchdog said.

The FTC’s settlement does require a consent agreement regarding so-called Standards Essential Patents held by Google’s Motorola subsidiary. Google is now required to license these patents to any company on “fair, reasonable and non-discriminatory” terms – known as FRAND terms.

“This will help ensure competition in the manufacture of smartphones and tablets,” said Simpson, “but that was never the heart of the issue. Biased search and Google’s favoring its own properties do real consumer harm. Google is the gateway to the Internet for most people. When Google rigs the game, we all suffer. They need to be stopped.”

Consumer Watchdog expressed concern that FTC Chairman Jon Leibowitz, who is expected to step down from the commission soon, may have rushed to finish the investigation so it could be concluded under his chairmanship.

The nonpartisan, nonprofit public interest group noted that Google’s monopolistic business practices are under investigation by a number of state attorneys general including Texas, California, New York and Ohio. European Union competition officials are also investigating Google.

Keep The Internet Free

1:07 pm in Uncategorized by Consumer Watchdog

Photobucket

Should one company be able to control how you use the Internet and what you see?

Google — with 70% of online search and 90% of mobile search markets — is increasingly doing this. Evidence before the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) shows that Google skews its results towards its own services and commercial priorities, when consumers believe they are getting the most “popular” organic result.

After a year’s probe the FTC’s staff has recommended antitrust prosecution, but politics may be stopping the suit. Please send an email today asking the Commission to approve that antitrust suit.

Consumer Watchdog cheered when the FTC took up its antitrust investigation, which we began calling for more than two years ago. Recently there have been reports that the Commissioners are wavering and may not act against the Internet giant. You can help us make sure the five commissioners don’t cave.

Google uses its monopoly on the Internet and in the mobile space to bias searches in favor of its own products and services, harming consumers and competitors alike. The time for action is now. Ask the Commission to adopt its staff’s recommendation and approve an an antitrust suit against Google.

For more information on our support for the FTC’s antitrust investigation read our letter to the Commission here.
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Posted by John M. Simpson. John is a leading voice on technological privacy and stem cell research issues. His investigations this year of Google’s online privacy practices and book publishing agreements triggered intense media scrutiny and federal interest in the online giant’s business practices. His critique of patents on human embryonic stem cells has been key to expanding the ability of American scientists to conduct stem cell research. He has ensured that California’s taxpayer-funded stem cell research will lead to broadly accessible and affordable medicine and not just government-subsidized profiteering. Prior to joining Consumer Watchdog in 2005, he was executive editor of Tribune Media Services International, a syndication company. Before that, he was deputy editor of USA Today and editor of its international edition. Simpson taught journalism a Dublin City University in Ireland, and consulted for The Irish Times and The Gleaner in Jamaica. He served as president of the World Editors Forum. He holds a B.A. in philosophy from Harpur College of SUNY Binghamton and was a Gannett Fellow at the Center for Asian and Pacific Studies at the University of Hawaii. He has an M.A. in Communication Management from USC’s Annenberg School for Communication.

Google Gets Antitrust Ultimatum From FTC

12:54 pm in Uncategorized by Consumer Watchdog

FTC

Federal Trade Commission Chairman Jon Leibowitz has given Google what Bloomberg News Service describes as an ultimatum to settle the agency’s antitrust investigation in the next few days or face a lawsuit.

Citing unidentified sources, Bloomberg reporter Sara Forden on Monday wrote:

Google has been in discussions with the agency for about two weeks and hasn’t put any remedy proposals on the table, said the people, who declined to be identified because the negotiations are private.

FTC staff have been investigating whether the Google has been abusing its dominance of the Internet for more than a year. The staff has reportedly recommended issuing a complaint focused on Google’s search practices and also for misusing its patents to block rivals’ smartphones.

The FTC has told Google it won’t accept a resolution short of a consent decree, Bloomberg’s Forden wrote, and is prepared to take action in the next week or two.

Google is continuing its usual happy-face spin. “We continue to work cooperatively with the Federal Trade Commission and are happy to answer any questions they may have,” Google Spokesman Adam Kovacevich told Bloomberg.

At first blush the idea that the FTC is holding out for a consent decree may sound reassuring. For what it’s worth though, I’m a little concerned that a settlement might not do enough.

Chairman Leibowitz is expected to step down from the agency soon. There is speculation that in a nod toward his legacy, he might be willing to agree to a less than adequate settlement, just to be able to say the FTC got the Internet giant on his watch.

Frankly, there is a similar concern among privacy advocates that there could be a willingness to accept a weak Do Not Track standard for the same reason.

If the Commission files a lawsuit, the FTC could proceed in its own administrative court or in federal court. No decision has been made about the venue.

Meanwhile there was a development over the summer that might give Google pause. The Commission has changed its policy and can now seek “disgorgement” — forcing a firm to surrender profits as an antitrust penalty. If the FTC goes that route, it might really concentrate the minds of the geeks in Mountain View.

And don’t forget the other side of the Atlantic. The EU is pressing Google to resolve its antitrust concerns or face a formal complaint. That, too, could come in a matter of weeks.
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