More on Google: is scraping anticompetitive?
One of the good things about my powerpoint presentation on “Search engines and competition law” is that it does not give a clue about the substance of what I said ;)
As you can infer from my previous posts on this investigation, I’m quite skeptical (to put it mildly) with regard to the legal basis for the accusations against Google (partly because I don’t know whether there are any…).
Whereas in my presentation I mostly addressed search bias-related allegations, there is another issue that raises pretty fundamental questions. I’m referring to the claim that Google “scrapes” content from other websites and appropiates it (these allegations refer to the small portion of black letter text that contextualizes search results and that you find below the green web address shown below every result).
Allegations over this practice strike me for various reasons and raise a few important questions, mainly what on earth does it have to do with competition law?
If the content at issue is not copyright-protected; if they are short informative excerpts originating from content made publicly available; if they contribute to “scraped” pages getting more traffic; and if they’re necessary for users to understand search results; why should competition law ban their use? Why should competition law create a second level of protection stricter than copyright law? Why second-guess copyright law? This brings us back to an old debate: where does competition law stop? Should antitrust also second guess, for instance, environmental law, tax law, accountancy or data privacy? (I’ll come back to the data privacy-antitrust interface on a later post, for it “coincidentally” appears to be a hot academic topic nowadays).
Allegations on scraping were discussed within the framework of the FTC’s investigation. In fact, as part of the settlement with the FTC Google has committed to allow all websites to opt out of appearing on Google’s vertical sites while still appearing in organic results.
Given that complainants in the EU proceedings have also insisted on this matter [(probably scraping content from each others' complaints ;)] it’s safe to guess that the European Commission might attempt to obtain a similar commitment, and I find this quite a problematic precedent. Againg: why is scraping a competition law issue?
I’m comforted not to be the only dissenter. Commissioner Rosch authored a dissenting opinion accompanying the FTC’s statement in which he articulates the view that these practices “do not violate the antitrust laws in any respect“. He notes that his colleagues manifested “strong concerns” about these practices, but that no one ever argued that they breached antitrust rules, not even Section 5 of the FTC Act.
For a sensible opinion on why the display of content from other websites in search results is a perfectly valid business practice, take a look at the German Supreme Court’s Judgment in the Paperboy case (click here for a summary in English)