Rowland Manthorpe, Wired:
Google was guilty. The European Commissioner for Competition, Margrethe Vestager, made that brutally clear. “Google abused its market dominance,” Vestager declared as she announced her judgement in Brussels on June 27, 2017. She handed Google a £2.1 billion fine – the largest antitrust penalty ever handed to a single company, and gave it 90 days to change its ways.
Watching the livestream 500 metres away in the Thon Hotel EU, Adam and Shivaun Raff shared a smile of relief. It had been 11 gruelling years since they realised Google was deliberately demoting their price comparison website, Foundem, in search results. Eight years since they brought their complaint to the European Commission, becoming the first plaintiffs in the case against the search firm (others include Yelp, Expedia and Deutsche Telecom.) Now, at long last, they had justice.
Competition abuse is difficult to understand, because its victims are usually invisible. Their presence is measured in absences: businesses abandoned; careers unfulfilled; innovations stifled at birth. Today, Foundem’s website is the digital equivalent of a boarded-up house. But when the Raffs created it in 2005, it represented a technological epiphany: a search engine for the parts of the internet Google couldn’t reach.
The idea came to Adam one day as he smoked a Silk Cut outside his office, where he ran the European weather-forecasting service’s supercomputers. With Shivaun, a consultant who managed software projects for clients such as Boots and General Motors, he’d been tinkering with an idea for a location-based dating app – Tinder before the fact. Suddenly, Adam realised the same method of narrowing down searches could be used to sort the vast iceberg of deep data hidden in the databases behind websites. A single configurable system could search and retrieve everything from property to flights to TV sets.
The culprit was an update to an algorithm ostensibly designed to root out spam, but targeted at features, such as lack of original content, that are also defining characteristics of search services. Because Google is hosted across numerous data centres, Adam was able to watch, horrified, as the penalty swept across the search engine, downgrading Foundem for every search except its own name.
One second Foundem ranked first or third (a status it maintained on Yahoo! and Microsoft’s Bing). The next, it was down in the 70s and 80s. For huge swathes of online life, Google is the default entry point. In a single stroke, Foundem had effectively been disappeared from the internet.
The Raffs knew instantly this was an existential threat. “We didn’t kid ourselves for one second,” says Adam. “If Google didn’t lift this penalty, we’d be dead.” But when they tried to contact Google, it was like sending messages into the void. Through a contact, they reached the firm’s head of search quality. The response came back from a colleague, saying he had “no specific insights to offer”.
To the Raffs, this is Google’s real crime: its inaccessibility and unwillingness to respond, even to legitimate complaints. “We’ve never said that the fault was being penalised,” says Adam. “Collateral damage in complex algorithms is inevitable. The fault was not having a procedure by which we could appeal and get timely relief.”
Still, the Raffs remained hopeful. That was, until December 8, 2008, as the pair were eating supper in their kitchen. Suddenly their phones buzzed in unison. The couple had programmed their site to send SMS alerts every time it was slow to load. Now, as they rushed to their study, they saw why: their traffic was up, way up. At first, they thought it must be a denial-of-service attack. Then one of their developers rang: they’d just been named the UK’s top comparison site by Channel 5’s The Gadget Show.
The Raffs had long been collecting evidence to prove their legitimacy. Now they had indisputable validation. They went back to Google, only to receive the terse response: “we aren’t able to offer private support”.
For the Raffs, this was the breaking point; not only was Google not going to lift Foundem’s penalty, it wasn’t even prepared to acknowledge it. “It was clear that we’d have to go to war,” says Adam. “Yes,” says Shivaun. “That was the point where we said to ourselves, ‘Fuck this. Google are bullies. This is wrong. We are going to win.’”
After a year of campaigning, the Raffs finally managed to put pressure on Google: at the end of 2009, the search firm manually “whitelisted” Foundem, which instantly saw traffic from Google search jump by “around 10,000 per cent”. But this left the couple with a dilemma. They’d seen first hand how Google strangled competition. Knowing this, how could they carry on as if nothing had happened?
The question was especially urgent, because Google’s gaming of its rankings was growing more pervasive.
The shift was symbolised by a new box at the top of Google that presented search results in pre-digested form. Sometimes these were helpful: dates of birth, song lyrics, simple calculations. But, very often, the “answer” was in fact a link to a paid-for Google product. In Google’s early days, founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin proudly proclaimed that, “We may be the only people in the world who can say our goal is to have people leave our website as quickly as possible.” The hidden addendum now appeared to be: as long as you go somewhere else on our estate.
Once again, the Raffs worked through their options. The Competition Commission was interested in their case. Should they take it forward, given what that could involve? They considered Google quietly twisting the world’s primary source of information to suit its own commercial agenda. “We decided to keep going,” says Shivaun. “We didn’t know quite how long that would take.”
When the Raffs filed their finalised competition complaint in February 2010, the Commissioner was former Spanish politician Joaquín Almunia. At the time, pre-Snowden, Google’s image in Europe was sparkling. Rather than prosecuting the firm, Almunia offered it an opportunity to settle, by tweaking the way it showed searches for products. He wanted a quick fix. Instead, he set the stage for an excruciatingly drawn-out conflict.
The difficulty was Google’s plan to restore competition on its site. It proposed an auction system, whereby rivals would bid for links below its own specialised services, such as shopping and travel, an area in which it was expanding aggressively. Google claimed this approach would increase its competitors’ visibility and traffic, which, strictly speaking, was true. What it failed to mention was that the auction would consume most of its rivals’ profits, because they would have to bid against each other to appear in search results.
To compound the situation, every penny from the auction would go directly to, of all places, Google. Even if its subsidiaries lost out, the parent company would continue to reap the financial rewards.
The auction purported to enable competition. Instead, the Raffs argued, it would destroy it.
“You may think this is naïve,” Shivaun said. “But the good news is, it’s so bad, it’s good.”
“All of us around this table,” Adam added, “understand that this is the anti-competitive equivalent of letting off a nuclear bomb. It is going to destroy the market rather than rescue it. It is our responsibility, as the people who understand that, to do everything we possibly can to explain this to the Commission.”
There was a glimmer of hope. When the Raffs’ pre-rejection letter arrived in Crowthorne on June 3, 2014, it came with a package of supporting documents, including some of Google’s official arguments to the Commission. For the first time since the firm proposed its auction, the Raffs – who, they say, were one of just two complainants granted access to this critical submission – were able to see what their opponent was saying in private. And, as they read, they realised how Almunia had been fooled.
To a non-expert eye, Google’s paper was convincing. “I was reading it thinking, this is dangerous, because it was compelling if you don’t understand the technicalities,” says Adam.
Powerful Commissioners raised public concerns, not only about the design of the auction, but also about the principle of search itself. Shouldn’t search results be based on merit and usefulness, rather than who could pay the most?
Behind the scenes, Google fought to paint this as established industries conspiring to fight off digital innovators. “There is a very dangerous and counterfactual narrative that Google is pushing,” says Adam, “which was that it was political pressure – and there was – but that political pressure was the result of politicians understanding what a complete sham Google’s proposal was.”