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Sunday, January 6, 2013

Critics of Google Antitrust Ruling Fault the Focus

Critics of Google Antitrust Ruling Fault the Focus

WASHINGTON - One of the more surprising conclusions drawn by the Federal Trade Commission when it dropped its nearly two-year antitrust investigation into Google last week was that Google, far from harming consumers, had actually helped them.

Jon Leibowitz, right, the Federal Trade Commission chairman, speaking last week after the decision was announced.

F.T.C. Hands Google Big Win Close Video See More Videos '

Amit Singhal of Google said search changes are researched.

But some critics of the inquiry now contend that the commission found no harm in Google's actions because it was looking at the wrong thing.

Instead of considering harm to people who come to Google to search for information, Google's competitors and their supporters say that the government should have been looking at whether Google's actions harmed its real customers - the companies that pay billions of dollars each year to advertise on Google's site.

In its reports, the F.T.C. did not detail how it defined harm or what quantitative measures it had used to determine that Google users were better off.

But interviews with people on all sides of the investigation - government officials, Google supporters, advocates for Microsoft and other competitors, and antitrust experts and economists - show that many of the yardsticks the commission used to measure its outcomes were remarkably similar to Google's own. Not surprisingly, they cast Google in a favorable light.

At issue were changes that Google made in recent years to its popular search page. Google makes frequent adjustments to the formulas that determine what results are generated when a user enters a search. Currently, it makes more than 500 changes a year, or more than one each day.

Users rarely notice the changes in the formulas, or algorithms, that generate search results, but businesses do. If a change in the formulas causes a business to rank lower in the order of results generated by a search, it is likely to miss potential customers.

What customers are now seeing reflects changes in the format of Google results. For certain categories of searches - travel information, shopping comparisons and financial data, for example - Google has begun presenting links to its own related services.

People close to the investigation said that Google had presented the F.T.C. with the results of tests with focus groups hired by an outside firm to review different versions of a Google search results page. After Google acquired ITA, a travel search business, in 2011, it began testing a new way to display flight results.

The company asked test users to compare side-by-side examples of a results page with just the familiar 10 blue links to specialty travel sites with a page that had at the top a box containing direct links to airlines and fares.

People who reviewed the Google data said tests with hundreds of people showed that fewer than one in five users preferred the page with links only. Users said they liked the box of flight results, so Google reasoned that making the change was better for the consumer.

“There is a deep science to search evaluation,” Amit Singhal, a senior vice president who oversees Google's search operation, said in an interview on Friday. “A lot of work goes into every change we make.”

But the changes were not better for companies or alternative travel sites that were pushed off the first page of results by Google's flight box and associated links. By pushing links to competing sites lower, Google might be making things easier for people who come to it for free search. But it also is having a negative effect on competitors, shutting off traffic for those sites.

Drawing fewer customers as a result of Google's free links, those competitors are forced to advertise more to draw traffic. And advertisers who aren't competitors have fewer places to go to reach consumers, meaning Google can use its market power to raise advertising prices.

“There might be no consumer harm if Google eliminates Yelp,” said one Microsoft advocate, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the likelihood of further interactions with the F.T.C. “But advertisers certainly are harmed.”

A version of this article appeared in print on January 7, 2013, on page B1 of the New York edition with the headline: Critics of Google Antitrust Ruling Fault the Focus.

Disruptions: Smart-Guns Don\'t Kill the Wrong People

Gun owners and advocates are fond of saying, “Guns don't kill people, people kill people.”

This might be a more useful aphorism: Smart-guns don't kill the wrong people.

Technology exists, or could exist, that would make guns safer. The idea of a safe gun might seem to be the ultimate oxymoron: guns are designed to kill. But something missing from the gun-control debate that has followed the killing of 20 children and six adults at an elementary school in Newtown, Conn., is the role of technology in preventing or at least limiting gun deaths.

Biometrics and grip pattern detection can sense the registered owner of a gun and allow only that person to fire it. For example, the iGun, made by Mossberg Group, cannot be fired unless its owner is wearing a ring with a chip that activates the gun.

But you would be hard pressed to find this technology on many weapons sold in stores. “The gun industry has no interest in making smart-guns. There is no inc entive for them,” said Robert J. Spitzer, a professor of political science at SUNY Cortland and the author of four books on gun policy. “There is also no appetite by the government to press ahead with any kind of regulation requiring smart-guns.”

Why can we open our front doors with our iPhones and have cars that drive themselves, but we can't make a gun that doesn't fire unless its registered owner is using it?

“We can,” Dr. Spitzer said. “These safety options exist today. This is not Buck Rogers type of stuff.” But gun advocates are staunchly against these technologies, partly because so many guns are bought not in gun shops, but in private sales. “Many guns are bought and sold on the secondary market without background checks, and that kind of sale would be inhibited with fingerprinting-safety technologies in guns,” he said.< /p>

I called several major gun makers and the National Rifle Association. No one thinks a smart-gun will stop a determined killer. But I thought Smith & Wesson and Remington, for instance, would want to discuss how technology might help reduce accidental shootings, which killed 600 people and injured more than 14,000 in the United States in 2010. The gunmakers did not respond, and neither did the N.R.A.

A Wired magazine article from 2002 gives a glimpse of the N.R.A.'s thinking. “Mere mention of ‘smart-gun' technology elicited sneers and snickers faster than a speeding bullet,” the magazine wrote. It quoted the N.R.A.'s executive vice president, Wayne LaPierre, as saying, “Tragic victims couldn't have been saved by trigger locks or magazine bans or ‘smart-gun' technology, or some new government commission running our firearms companies.”

After the massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown in December, Mr. LaPierre created a new aphorism: “The only thing that stops a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun.” He said violent video games and movies were part of the problem, but he didn't mention smart- guns as a solution.

TriggerSmart, an Irish company, has patented a childproof smart-gun. One feature is a “safe zone” that can be installed in schools and acts as a force field, disabling any TriggerSmart gun that enters a designated area. Robert McNamara, the company's founder, has been trying to persuade gun makers to adopt the technology. He isn't having much luck. “One gun manufacturer told us if we put this technology in one particular gun and some kid gets shot with another gun, then they will have to put them in all guns,” he said.

“We believe we could have helped prevent the Newtown massacre.”

E-mail: bilton@nytimes.com