Google uses public safety argument to deflect competition criticisms

Google’s advertising empire (both in search and online display advertising) is under fire on several fronts, and in this week’s proceedings, the narrative took a new hue as the search giant’s defense spoke up in court.

In some territories, those jibes are being landed in the court of public opinion – okay, maybe make that the court of ‘professional opinion’ – while in other jurisdictions, such as the District of Columbia, it is literally in the dock.

However, one thing appears universal: the defense strategy employed by Google. Here, it would appear that the online giant will emphasize the requirement for it — as a responsible corporate citizen — to protect the public as taking precedence over any obligation to feed a market.

Take, for instance, the Google Chrome team’s protracted rollout of Privacy Sandbox – the online advertising giant’s complicated (some would say nerve-wracking) – attempt to sustain behaviorally targeted advertising in the world’s most popular web browser after it sunsets third-party cookies.

Critics are often keen to point out how the proposals in their current guise are opaque at best — with the intensity of rebuttals to certain aspects prompting Google engineers to go back to the drawing board. At the recent Prebid conference, one source told Digiday there was widespread concern that Google will start “tipping the scale in their favor,” as the developments start to heat up.

However, Google’s argument of protecting Chrome users’ privacy will prove a tricky argument to counter. And the fact that the U.K.’s competition authority (the de-facto global regulator on all things Sandbox) continues to green-light its current course of action indicates it’s a tactic that’s working, thus far.

Meanwhile, Google parent Alphabet CEO Sundar Pichai mounted the company’s defense this week (in an actual courtroom) when he took the stand, in Google’s ongoing duel with the Justice Department over its dominance of the internet search market.

DOJ lawyers picked at Google’s business model in the age of AI, questioning why it let outfits such as Microsoft and ChatGPT beat it to market, and wondering why it was so quick to roll out its equivalent offering, Bard, after rivals took off?

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The implication here was that Google deliberately held back its AI offering over concerns that any such implementation would jeopardize its search monopoly. This would be a key blow if the DOJ can win over presiding judge, Amit P. Mehta, to this point of view.

However, just like its defense of Privacy Sandbox proposals, Google executives on the stand defaulted to their public-service defense under questioning from lawyers. Trial correspondent Ricky Sutton quoted Google search boss Prabhakar Raghavan as testifying the following from the stand: “Our sense was it was not quite yet responsible to put that technology out in front of users because of concerns about factuality and toxicity.” 

Whether Judge Mehta will adopt a similar outlook to Google’s plea of public service as the U.K.’s Competition Markets Authority remains to be seen. The trial continues.

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