By Rajika Chauhan
American life in the 21st century has become increasingly defined by a reliance on technology. Private and professional lives for the majority of the population are shaped by a host of software tools, and resting above this renewed system of being are the tech companies who turn the world with their services.
The young start-ups of the 80s and 90s have grown at an exponential rate in the new millennium, with companies such as Microsoft, Apple, Google and Amazon becoming titans of what is arguably the industry with the greatest play and significance in the modern era. Of the many spectators of this massive rise, the government is certainly taking notice.
The U.S Justice Department’s anti-trust case against Google is set to begin on Sept. 12, marking the most ambitious step in the government’s crack down on Big Tech’s unchecked dominance. The case marks the beginning of a new age in the increasingly tense relationship between the government and the tech industry, and its outcomes have the potential to finally slow the pace of a sector that has thus far shown no signs of stopping.
Reporting by The New York Times (NYT) indicates that the case began with the Trump Administration in 2019, when the Justice Department partnered with the Federal Trade Commission to begin new antitrust reviews into Apple and Google. The NYT states that in 2020, a collective of 35 states filed a joint lawsuit against Google, claiming that the company’s search policies were a form of illegal monopolizing. That case will be tried in conjunction with the one currently being led by the Justice Department, which transitioned from the Trump Administration into the Biden Administration.
The Department is specifically targeting Google’s practice of purchasing contracts with device companies, allowing its own search engine to be the default on consumer products, as detailed in USA Today. It claims that such agreements have aided the company in forming a monopoly, unlawfully shutting out other search engines such as Bing or DuckDuckGo from competition. A harm to consumers is also listed in the Department’s complaints, with the imposition of a default limiting the individual’s ability to choose an alternative browser.
The NYT reports that Google pays an approximate $18 billion to be the primary search engine on the Apple iOS. Investments such as these have spearheaded its rise to the $1.7 trillion giant it is now.
USA Today cites a scathing assessment of Google’s greed within the Department’s initial filings, which include the following: “Two decades ago, 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.”
As mentioned in USA Today, Google has responded to accusations with the claim that distribution deals are common practice in the business world, and that consumers are free to change the settings on their devices and switch to a different engine. The company argues that its success in consumer preference is simply due to the superior quality of its product. Similarweb, a data analysis firm, reports that Google controls almost 91% of the global search engine market.
General counsel to Google, Kent Walker, sees the Department’s case as an irresponsible overreach of authority.
“American law should be about promoting benefits for consumers,” Kent stated. “If we move away from that and make it harder for companies to provide great goods and services for consumers, that’s going to be bad for everyone.”
The case will be presided over by Judge Amit P. Mehta, appointed by President Barack Obama in 2014, according to USA Today. Leading arguments for the government is Kenneth Daintier, who has 30 years of litigation experience for the Justice Department. Google has recruited an army of lawyers for its defense, chief among them being John E. Schmitdlein.
This will be the largest legal challenge Google has faced in the two decades since its inception, and the consequences could be dire in its plan for continued growth, according to the NYT. The Justice Department hopes to impose changes in the company’s distribution practices, bringing an end to its monopoly over the search engine market and forcing a dynamic restructuring of its methods of operation. In short, some of the crucial tactics the company has employed in its gainful rise to the top are under threat of elimination.
On its part, the Justice Department typically positions its anti-trust cases around mergers or acquisitions. The specific emphasis of this case on a company’s business practices themselves indicates a higher level of discrimination and more intense targeting going forward. Reuters cites the last major anti-trust case the Department tried against a tech company as being in 1998, levied against Microsoft due to its monopoly in the personal computer market. The successful case set Microsoft on a path of excess caution, which Bill Gates would later blame for the company’s slow entry into the later cell phone market, as reported by the NYT.
An age-old debate rests at the center of this case, going back to the balance between the free market and central authority. The collective goal is to foster an economy that emphasizes innovation and quality products for the consumer, with sufficient competition to increase the variety of choices and drive progress. Whether this case is a step towards improving the conditions for competition or an act of punishing success is a question yet to be answered.