June 19, 2012
Is anyone paying attention to the profound antitrust implications of Google applying to ICANN to become the world’s largest domain registrar for Internet Taxonomy 2.0 — the next generation of Internet addressing and classification of information? Giving the world’s dominant search engine — that is already under antitrust investigation on four continents for favoring Google content over competitors’ content — the additional market power of controlling the allocation of new keyword domain-names which Google would then index for publishers, rank for users, and monetize for advertisers, is an unquestionable conflict of interest and a recipe for more Google monopolization.
ICANN’s original Internet taxonomy 1.0 involved truly “generic” top level domains as like .com, .org, .net, .gov, .edu, .mil, organized around institutional purposes and around geography to recognize sovereign nation authority like .US, .UK, .JP, .NZ, etc.
From a competition and antitrust standpoint, this emerging Internet Taxonomy 2.0 is radically different. First the so-called new generic Top Level Domains (gTLD) would no longer be truly “generic” transactional categories, but effectively commercial sub-categories that could function as specific commercial marketplaces and market segments for a prospective registrar to own, invest in, develop and control. Second, unlike the generic TLD registrars, new commercial TLD registrars could have substantial commercial conflicts of interests with those interests being registered. Third, these conflicts could thrust ICANN into a much larger ongoing policeman role and responsibility than it has today, which could have large implications for ICANN’s resources, support, and relations with sovereign powers.
ICANN revealed that Google applied for the most (101) generic top-level-domains (gTLD) of any entity. Google applied for many foundational gTLD “strings” that could comprise the core of an alternative more-specific, Internet addressing taxonomy to replace the existing generic taxonomy of .com, .org, and .net — over time. Google applied for the core supply-driven gTLDs that are critical to its business like: .search, .ads, .app, .dev, .blog, .map, .cloud, .web, .mail, .tech, .corp, .free, and .buy. Google also applied for the critical user-demand-driven gTLDs like: .store, .eat, .fun, .team, .love, .fly, .car, .new, .music, .movies, .book, .games, .med, .how, .RSVP, .home, .family, .mom, .dad, .kids, .baby, .play, .pet, and .dog.
Consider some problematic facts highly relevant to Google becoming a leading gTLD registrar. Google has 82% of the global search market and 92% of the global mobile search market per NetMarketShare. Google commands 44% of the global online advertising market per ZenithOptimedia. The overwhelming percentage of Internet navigation occurs via a search engine box or an address bar that also doubles as a search engine. The top Google search result generates 34% of traffic, the top three results generate 63% of traffic, and the first page of results generate 90+% of traffic per Chitka.
What are the antitrust implications?
First, Google is the only company with the market power to make or break a new gTLD by ranking them high or low in Google search results. Where would Google rank: bing.search? Facebook.ads? Apple.apps? Yahoo.mail? WordPress.blog? Rackspace.cloud? Navteq.maps? Amazon.books? eBay.buy? Yelp.eat? Orbitz.fly? Eharmony.love? evite.RSVP? If the preliminary findings of the EU’s Google antitrust investigation or the U.S. Senate Antitrust Subcommittee’s Google antitrust inquiry are any indicator, Google would steer Internet traffic and advertising to their new Google-owned gTLDs and away from their competitors’ sites or content.
Second, Google, as the world’s dominant search engine and search advertiser, is also the only ICANN gTLD applicant with near-perfect “inside knowledge” of: actual Internet traffic to the world’s existing Internet addresses; what words are most searched (i.e. most “relevant” to users); where Internet traffic and search words are trending; and what keywords are most readily monetized. Simply, Google is the only competitor that knows exactly in advance what specific keywords gTLD users will find most relevant and hence monetize-able. In a word, the outcome of this Internet Taxonomy 2.0 game would be decided before it is even played.
Third, Google, as the most-vertically-integrated Internet registrar in the world, could gain even more market power to: steer Internet users and search traffic to Google-owned gTLDs, domains and content; and exclude competitors and competing content from Google-owned gTLDs.
Fourth, Google has proven to be the only search engine or entity with the market power to force websites to redesign their site’s architecture to further reinforce Google’s market power. In 2010, Google announced it was changing its search ranking algorithm to specifically tie a website’s search ranking to whether or not the site loads fast. If Google’s systems measure that a website opens slowly, it will lower the site’s quality score, which will result in a lower search ranking, and consequently result in less traffic to monetize. Google’s tying of search ranking to site-loading-speed, inherently discriminates in favor of Google’s dominant and faster-loading, text-search-ad-driven websites, and against naturally-slower-loading, display-advertising-driven websites that use video ads.
This Google proclivity for using speed for anti-competitive advantage in search advertising could be especially problematic if Google were a gTLD registrar. If Google were to operate its gTLD offering from Google’s data centers, domains hosted in the Google cloud would always have an unmatchable loading-speed advantage over TLDs hosted in another location in another entities data center. Google could then tie search results of gTLDs to how fast they load (under the guise that’s best for users), and then it could force publishers, users and advertisers to shift traffic to Google’s new fastest-loading gTLDS in Google’s cloud.
In sum, there are many major antitrust implications with Googleopoly applying to become the most prolific Internet registrar in Internet Taxonomy 2.0. Don’t be fooled by the sleepy arcane nature of the ICANN gTLD alphabet soup. Just as “architecture rules,” taxonomy rules, especially in digital information businesses, search, and online advertising.
Given Google’s near-perfect knowledge of what over a billion Internet users most search for, and what keywords the global advertising industry is most interested in monetizing, and given Google’s cultural obsession with using data to make decisions, you can be sure that the commercial keywords Google has applied to own and control as registrar, are among the most strategic virtual real estate not yet locked up by Google. And given Google’s uniquely near-perfect knowledge of Internet traffic, you can assume that Google is several steps ahead of everyone in its gambit to corner the market for next generation keywords in Internet Taxonomy 2.0.
Where the well-known key to ownership success in real estate is: “location, location, location,” the less-well-known key to ownership success in virtual real estate is “keywords, keywords, keywords.”
Google’s registrar gambit foreshadows Google’s evolving mission from “organizing the world’s information to make it universally accessible and useful,” to reorganizing the Internet taxonomy to entrench Googleopoly for another generation.
What I find most amazing, is that Google is either so brazen or so oblivious to the outside world, that it is willing to pick a THIRD antitrust fight with antitrust authorities. While many know that the EU has already tentatively concluded Google is a monopoly that has abused its market power, and that the FTC has hired a top-prosecutor to run its Google antitrust probe, many may not know that the EU is also investigating Google-Motorola for abusing standards essential patents to foreclose competition, and that the DOJ warned Google-Motorola to not abuse standards essential patents in its official statement approving the Google-Motorola transaction.
Google did not need to play this big or aggressive with gTLDs because no other entity has the data or nano-traffic monitoring awareness of Google to dominate Internet Taxonomy 2.0. Simply, Google did not need to pick a THIRD major antitrust fight with law enforcement over gTLDs; it is powerful evidence Google is in “stop-us-if-you-can” mode.