Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Acquisitions and antitrust

As we’ve said before, we understand that as Google grows, we’re going to face more questions about how our business works. We recognize the responsibility we have, and we are always open to hearing ideas about how we can improve.

Washington Post columnist Steve Pearlstein writes today about Google’s acquisitions and antitrust law, and I thought I’d share a few reflections on his article:

All companies make “build vs. buy” decisions. Pearlstein writes that he has no problem with Google growing naturally, but that we shouldn’t be allowed to make acquisitions in new spaces. This isn’t how we -- or most companies -- approach these decisions. Sometimes it’s possible to develop a new product in-house; other times a company decides it can bring a new product to market faster by acquiring another company. Microsoft acquired Powerset in 2008 and then incorporated its search technology into Bing. Amazon acquired Zappos in 2009 instead of developing its own shoe-selling site. The Hart-Scott-Rodino legal process ensures that acquisitions like these aren’t implemented if they threaten competition or consumers, and the process works well.

We’re competing against other companies for acquisitions. Pearlstein expresses concern that Google’s acquisitions preclude the possibility that a company might instead be purchased by Microsoft, Apple, or Facebook. But those companies not only have substantial cash or equity that they use to make acquisitions, they also regularly compete against us and other companies to acquire leading startups. In 2007, Google bought DoubleClick, but then Microsoft spent twice as much for its display ad company aQuantive and Yahoo bought ad exchange Right Media. All mature companies regularly acquire companies to make big bets on new spaces.

Acquisitions are typically good for consumers and the economy. Antitrust law is designed to protect consumers, not competitors, and our acquisitions have created great things for consumers. Our 2004 acquisition of Keyhole led to Google Earth, which for the first time provided free satellite imagery for consumers. Our 2005 acquisition of a small company called Android -- and our investment in the technology that Andy Rubin was developing -- later led to the creation of the Android mobile operating system, which has injected more competition and openness into the smartphone space. For startups, getting acquired is often the path to success (especially given the difficult IPO market), so stopping large companies from making acquisitions would only deprive startups of another potential bidder and investors of a potential return on their invested capital. You can’t be both pro-economic growth and anti-acquisitions.

Courts and regulators recognize efficiencies in mergers into new spaces. They also have approved many deals where the leader in one category acquired the leader in a separate category. That includes Oracle’s acquisition of Siebel, Amazon’s acquisition of Audible, and Adobe’s acquisition of Macromedia. Each company was #1 in its respective field, and each merger was approved.

These aren’t easy issues -- and we don’t envy the government regulators who have to grapple with them! But most observers would agree that the antitrust laws are pretty durable and the courts have done a good job applying the law to new products and technologies. For our part, we’ll continue to make sure that our business practices reflect our commitment to compete fair and square.


APF said...

The important thing is that Google has always said, Google has always said, if you don't like their services, the “competition is just a click away.” (In other words, "Like it or lump it.")

With Google's increasing acquisitions, it is getting more and more difficult to "click away."

The (lack of) availability of personal support from Google is notorious, and the odd ambitions of Google's CEO seem grandiose. This does not bode well for users who may feel "entrapped."

Yano said...

I’m glad you pointed to these examples.
A trend seems to emerge among these ‘columnists’ in which they try to apply a double standard to everything Google, not hesitating about suggesting extraordinary measures and regulations that contradict the free market, sighting an acquisition being made or a new market being entered, which of course are very common, lawful, and logical actions that all big companies make all the time, but somehow they only cry foul when Google is involved, and so one has to suspect an arterial motive behind this rhetoric.

Fiona Tigris said...

Great examples - but I missed Microsoft's acquisition of Farecast in 2008 - now bing-travel.

@CraigKon1 said...

The news industry has had it out for Google since the launch of Google News and Adwords before that. So not surprising that WashPost opinion is picking on Google's business strategy today.

There is a belief among publishers and editors that these tools somehow infringe on journalistic integrity and the ability of news orgs to fund news rooms. However, used wisely, they both could've propped up the news industry and kept it on a growth path. But spurned these tools or tried to built their own, while Huffington Post put its imagination and grit to work and leverages all the web can bring them.

Now even the adage "don't mess with people who buy ink by the barrel" has been disrupted; "don't mess with people who sell links by billions" would be more apt. Watch out, WP, cause Google drives more digital traffic to you today than you'd care to admit.

Google has always been willing to play well with the news industry and even help them fend off competing forms of entertainment; after all, Google and the news industry share TEXT as their common medium. It's just that that insular old boys network has always wished Google away, and lacked the imagination to partner with Google constructively.

What a missed opportunity overall. Today's Wash Post column is sour grapes.

buzz said...

just a brief look at the acquisition history of other tech companies might help understand the growing pains of companies.

Manish said...

Response from Steve Pearlstein -