There are dreadfully few things the warring tribes of Washington agree upon, or to be more precise, are willing to publicly agree upon, since they’re required to at least appear to be in disagreement about everything for the sake of their unduly passionate base. Then comes Google, the great unifier, which spans right and left because neither tribe gets to own it.
What the suit says
“Two decades ago,” the lawsuit begins, “Google became the darling of Silicon Valley as a scrappy startup with an innovative way to search the emerging internet. That Google is long gone.” Here are some of the Justice Department’s central complaints:
A shady path to dominance: Google made its search engine the default option for users by striking multibillion-dollar deals with mobile carriers, smartphone makers and giant partners like Apple.
Shutting out the competition: Partly as a result of those deals, Google now controls 88 percent of the U.S. search engine market, an unparalleled power the company uses to effectively prevent alternative search engines from competing.
A monopoly on advertising: By monopolizing search, Google has also monopolized the search ad market, which the suit argues is distinct from the broader digital advertising market in which companies like Facebook and Amazon also compete.
Before Google, there was an array of search engines, from Altavista to Infoseek, not that many people remember them. We needed them. For those who weren’t around then, people and companies used to advertise their URL like this, “www.xerox.com,”* so that you could find them to buy their goods or services. The reason was that they wanted you to find them and, without a search engine, there was no other way but to know their URL. Then came search engines, and it was magical.
After opening your browser, you went to your search engine of choice and typed in your query. What you would get in response was often a mystery, largely reliant on how well you formed your search. Search engines enabled us to find things on the world wide web. Sure, we might be able to find Xerox, but you couldn’t find your local copier seller unless you knew her name and URL. Imagine the hugest mall of stores ever, but no way to know where they were.
So search engines were wonderful and opened the internet to humanity. Yet, there was a problem, as was pervasive in the web of old. We had the critical piece of the puzzle that we absolutely needed, and yet there was no way to monetize it. For those who aren’t clear what that means or why that matters, businesses need to earn money to survive. They need to pay employees. They need to have offices and servers. They need to make a profit or why bother? Lycos wasn’t a charity but a business, and it wasn’t providing a service that we needed because they liked us, but because they hoped to turn it into a cash machine.
Then came Google. Google did it better, and word spread around the ‘net that it was far superior to any of the search engines that came before it. And it was.
Google didn’t put a gun to anyone’s head to make them use it. It was just there. And it was, wait for it, free to use, which means in the technology business model that we were not the users but the product. And yet, Google, like its predecessors, had to figure out some way to make money off its product or it couldn’t survive. The answer came from advertising, from keywords to targeted ads, and it was the only game in town because people chose Google.
Now it’s a behemoth and a pariah, because it’s more powerful than governments. Google could be stripped of its clout overnight if only people stopped using it. Enter Microsoft, no struggling startup, who tried to steal Google’s thunder. It could have afforded strategic alliances that form the basis of what’s now alleged to be part of Google’s horizontal monopoly in violation of the Sherman Antitrust Act. Are you using Bing?
The backend question of the government case against Google is whether it causes harm to consumers.
Hidden costs: As my colleague David Leonhardt notes, Google’s control over search means it can charge marketers higher fees for ads, which may pose a burden to small businesses and drive up the prices of the goods being advertised.
Declining search quality: Because users have so few alternatives, Google doesn’t have much incentive to optimize its search engine for user satisfaction. “Without us even realizing it, the Internet’s most-used website has been getting worse,” Geoffrey A. Fowler writes in The Washington Post. “On too many queries, Google is more interested in making search lucrative than a better product for us.”
A weakened press: As Matt Stoller wrote in The Times last year, many news organizations have virtually no choice now but to depend on Google and Facebook to reach readers and fund their operations. This centralization of power, Mr. Stoller argues, poses two crises: a financial crisis, because advertising revenue that used to go to publishers is now captured by big tech intermediaries, causing the news industry to collapse; and an editorial one, because media’s dependency on a handful of platforms incentivizes virality and sensationalism over high-quality journalism.
Lost privacy: Google doesn’t charge users a cash price, but that doesn’t mean it’s free. “When a consumer uses Google, the consumer provides personal information and attention in exchange for search results,” the lawsuit reads. “Google then monetizes the consumer’s information and attention by selling ads.” Because Google’s search engine has no true rivals, users have little recourse if they are dissatisfied with the company’s data collection practices.
These are all legitimate arguments, of varying degrees of severity. There are “structural” solutions, such as prohibiting Google from locking up Apple as the default search engine, or divesting of Youtube, even if it’s argued that these otherwise “smart” business choices are what enables Google to make a profit, perhaps an obscene profit, which is what businesses are supposed to do. But what if the government succeeds in knocking Google down a peg or two?
But in The Washington Post, Megan McArdle argues that prohibiting such deals wouldn’t do much at this point to challenge Google’s dominance: People will simply opt to make it their default search engine anyway out of habit and convenience.
The only solution that would have any real chance of changing Google’s dominant status is to take a private company and turn it into a pubic utility, like the electric company. It would suck all the clout out of the omnipotent Google, but then we’re left with the electric company. Or there’s always Bing.
*For a fun stroll down memory lane, remember having to type at the C;/ prompt, “www/” to just to get onto the web? Before Windows allowed any idiot to point and click, you had to know a little DOS just to get there.