Google may feel business end of government

Corporate America’s hubris is that it can have government do its bidding today without the risk that it will have to do government’s bidding tomorrow.

Internet giant Google, the ubiquitous search engine company, may soon learn the downside of urging government intervention in its industry.

Google has been among the main advocates for new federal regulations to prevent Internet service providers from favoring some companies’ traffic over others’ by imposing the euphemistically dubbed “net neutrality,” as if it would harm no one.

But net neutrality would force companies like AT&T to provide access to their limited Internet networks, meaning they couldn’t bar bandwidth hogs such as personal file sharing services. It also would mean the ISPs’ own services couldn’t be granted preferential access on their own networks.

The problem with so-called “net neutrality” is it denies owners and operators control of the massive electronic systems they built and maintain at their expense. Google and other Internet services that spent nothing to build those networks are seeking to benefit from the government’s regulatory powers.

The shoe may soon be on the other foot. Developments are brewing in Washington and Europe that could target Google with government intervention the way Google seeks to use the government to target Internet service providers.

Activists, competitors and government regulators are considering whether Google has too much power in deciding which Internet sites it directs traffic to, and which sites are “consigned to outer darkness,” as the international publication Financial Times recently put it.

“‘After regulating the ‘pipes’ of the Internet with net neutrality, says Frank Pasquale, a professor at Seton Hall law school, ‘we need to look at the next part of the bottleneck, and that means search,’” the Financial Times reported earlier this month.

While there is no imminent legislation or pending regulation in Washington, antitrust regulators reportedly are looking into how the company’s core search ranking system works. Google’s announced $700 million acquisition of travel technology company ITA Software may increase that scrutiny.

Meanwhile, Europe’s top competition official says Brussels is taking Google’s search power seriously. “The European Commission began an informal review into allegations of bias in the search rankings early this year,” the Financial Times reported, leading the publication to conclude that in antitrust circles “the issue was now squarely on Brussels’ agenda.”

Moreover, German authorities also are considering complaints brought by German newspaper and magazine publishers.

If cartel regulators in Brussels determine Google to be dominant in its market, the company could be put on notice to act with “special responsibility,” a typically vague European legal requirement leading to closer examination of Google’s practices.

Google may soon discover this nascent interest in “search neutrality” will develop along the lines of the government’s “net neutrality,” which Google unwisely advocated. Google may end up feeling government’s heavy hand, as have so many other corporate interests that sought regulatory advantages from government.