Leading up to the August Republican presidential primary debate, an official from Google’s Civics and U.S. Campaigns team reached out to the Republican National Committee with a standard question, according to a cache of emails obtained by The Intercept: “[D]oes the RNC have live stream plans that I can share with the product team?”
The question made sense: For major events, people flock to Google to find out when a live event is occurring — yielding the now-legendary 2011 HuffPost article “What Time Is the Super Bowl?” — and also, just as importantly, where that event can be watched.
An RNC official told Google via email that the debate would be streaming exclusively on the upstart video platform Rumble. The August 23 debate was broadcast on Fox News and streamed on Fox Nation, which requires a subscription, while Rumble was the only one to stream it for free.
On the day of and during the debate, however, potential viewers who searched Google for “GOP debate stream” were returned links to YouTube, Fox News, and news articles about the debate, according to screen recordings of contemporaneous searches. Rumble was nowhere on the first page.
For Rumble, which is currently in discovery in an antitrust lawsuit against Google in California, this is a case of Google suppressing its competitors in favor of its own product, YouTube. “The first Republican presidential debate was yet another example of Google’s determination to squash competing video platforms,” said Rumble general counsel Michael Ellis. “In its own words, Google uses search to highlight other major election events but chose not to offer the same feature to Rumble’s livestream. We look forward to proving Google’s continued anticompetitive conduct in court.”
For Google, it was merely a miscommunication. “The facts here are very mundane,” said a Google spokesperson. “People could easily find information about where to watch the debate in Google Search results. And as part of our ongoing effort to build dedicated features in Search to more prominently showcase events like debates, we reached out to the RNC and Rumble, but unfortunately it didn’t come together in time to test and create the livestream feature. We’ve already worked with the RNC and Rumble to get this feature set up for the next debate, as we would do with any livestream provider.”
Twelve days before the debate, on August 11, Google asked the RNC for a link to the livestream or a proper contact at Rumble, explaining, “As we often do for major election events, we’re exploring linking to the Livestream on Search and our product team is asking for a link to test the feature.” The following Monday, August 14, Google followed up again, telling the RNC it needed the link that same day if it was going to be featured on the day of the debate. The RNC looped in the Rumble team. “Amazing, thank you!” the Google official responded on August 14, asking Rumble for a URL for the debate stream.
A Rumble official asked for “clarity” on what exactly Google needed, asking to set up a call.
Google didn’t respond, and Rumble bumped the email the next day, without success. From there, both sides let it drop, according to the emails reviewed by The Intercept.
YouTube is owned by Google, and it has regularly been the subject of anticompetitive allegations from rivals, who charge that Google unfairly and illegally favors YouTube in its search algorithm. Google, in fact, is in the middle of a landmark antitrust trial, charged with anticompetitive practices by the Department of Justice.
Now, to be charitable to Google, the company’s request for a URL that day was clear, and there’s nothing more annoying in office life than asking for a phone call when email will do. But, to be charitable to Rumble, requiring that an event have a URL nine days in advance is also a bit annoying. A Rumble official told The Intercept that the company wanted to jump on the phone to see what exactly Google needed, because their system doesn’t produce a live link that far in advance.
The conversation between the two companies, in the end, is irrelevant as a matter of law, beyond establishing that Google was aware Rumble would be streaming the debate. Even though Google offered to feature it, the company would not have been required by antitrust law to promote a competitor’s link above its organic search results. It would, however, be barred from suppressing the competitor’s link from organic results. The fact that Rumble’s link did not appear on the first page even though it was the most relevant link the search could return means either the search engine failed at its task or the link was suppressed.