Bench Memos

An Antitrust Probe of Google?

As chairmen of the Federal Trade Commission for nearly all of President Reagan’s presidency, we are troubled by Sen. Herb Kohl’s and Sen. Mike Lee’s letter to the FTC urging an antitrust probe of Google.

At the FTC in those days, we were always suspicious of companies that came to us seeking to wound a strong rival by complaining of unfair competition. Such rent-seeking — that is, the attempt to gain economic advantage by manipulating the political process — should always be suspect.

Having been asked by Google to look at the matter, we believe that the complaints of Google’s competitors are simply rent-seeking. We have seen no evidence that consumers have been harmed by Google’s search algorithms. Indeed, consumers are reaping enormous benefits from the free service designed to reflect their choices. We find it curious that adherents to modern antitrust economic understanding shaped by Robert Bork and others would forget that antitrust law is supposed to protect consumer welfare not competitor welfare.

Of course, there is nothing improper about members of Congress urging an agency to inquire into a possible violation of the laws under its jurisdiction. But in this case to do so is to kick open the back door to de facto government regulation of the Internet, something that Congress has resisted so far. One has to wonder if those urging Members of Congress to punish Google see this as a way to accomplish that larger regulatory agenda.

Finally, at a time when there is little life in the economy, to open the most innovative, dynamic, and job-creating sector to smothering antitrust regulation is ill-advised and potentially destructive.

— Jim Miller was FTC chairman from October 1981 to October 1985 and Dan Oliver was FTC chairman from April 1986 to August 1989. They are consultants to Google.

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