Antitrust & Competition Policy Blog

Editor: D. Daniel Sokol
University of Florida
Levin College of Law

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

The Problem of Search Engines as Essential Facilities: An Economic & Legal Assessment

Posted by D. Daniel Sokol

Geoffrey A. Manne, Executive Director, International Center for Law & Economics (ICLE), Lecturer in Law, Lewis & Clark Law School discusses The Problem of Search Engines as Essential Facilities: An Economic & Legal Assessment.

ABSTRACT: What is wrong with calls for search neutrality, especially those rooted in the notion of Internet search (or, more accurately, Google, the policy scolds’ bête noir of the day) as an “essential facility,” and necessitating government-mandated access? As others have noted, the basic concept of neutrality in search is, at root, farcical. The idea that a search engine, which offers its users edited access to the most relevant websites based on the search engine’s assessment of the user’s intent, should do so “neutrally” implies that the search engine’s efforts to ensure relevance should be cabined by an almost-limitless range of ancillary concerns. Nevertheless, proponents of this view have begun to adduce increasingly detail-laden and complex arguments in favor of their positions, and the European Commission has even opened a formal investigation into Google’s practices, based largely on various claims that it has systematically denied access to its top search results (in some cases paid results, in others organic results) by competing services, especially vertical search engines. To my knowledge, no one has yet claimed that Google should offer up links to competing general search engines as a remedy for its perceived market foreclosure, but Microsoft’s experience with the “Browser Choice Screen” it has now agreed to offer as a consequence of the European Commission’s successful competition case against the company is not encouraging. These more superficially sophisticated claims are rooted in the notion of Internet search as an “essential facility” – a bottleneck limiting effective competition. These claims, as well as the more fundamental harm-to-competitor claims, are difficult to sustain on any economically-reasonable grounds. To understand this requires some basic understanding of the economics of essential facilities, of Internet search, and of the relevant product markets in which Internet search operates.

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