On October 20, The U.S. Department of Justice announced it was pressing charges against Google for violating antitrust laws by “unlawfully maintaining monopolies in the markets for general search services, search advertising and general search advertising in the United States through anticompetitive and exclusionary practices.” The DOJ is using legislation aimed at curtailing harmful monopolies, namely Section 2 of the Sherman Act, in an attempt to limit Google’s control of the search engine and advertising market and the harmful practices they are able to engage in as a result of this.
Google responded with the assertion that “[p]eople use Google because they choose to, not because they’re forced to, or because they can’t find alternatives.” This openly contradicts the DOJ’s central accusation that Google’s outsized presence and actions block customers from choosing search engines other than Google on their devices, essentially forcing them to use their service.
Their case hinges on this accusation and the claim that the company took advantage of its chokehold on the search market to engage in harmful business practices that stifled competition and adversely affected consumers. Section 2 of the Sherman Act expressly outlaws monopolies that engage in anti-competitive conduct, or those that “acquir[e] or maintai[n]… monopoly power only through improper means.”
So is Google a monopoly? Monopolies are inherently anti-competitive. They result from corporations buying their way into dominance in any given market, crushing their rivals along the way and ensuring their product or service becomes the only option for consumers. When she testified to the House Judiciary Subcommittee on Antitrust earlier in October, antitrust expert Sally Hubbard explained how “much of the success of these corporations is also due to having acquired hundreds of other companies, along with the people and services within these companies, in ways that have enabled these giants to build intricate and self-reinforcing networks of essential services.”
Using this definition, Google meets the criteria of a monopoly.
While known mostly for the search service that first popularized the company, over the years Google has grown into a monolith. If we ignore the scores of other unrelated services and products Google has bought and only look at the core search service — and the purchases Google made to supplement that — we see that Google has a policy of buying its way to the top.
The prevalence of Google’s search engine today is powered by the sheer amount of spaces Google exists in. From purchasing Android, the operating system that seventy percent of all phones in the world run on and requiring phone manufactures integrate their search engine into every aspect of the design, to buying Waze to get access to a wealth of new user data for the improvement of Google Maps — and also to neutralize a major rival — Google has never shied away from monopolistic practices. That’s not even to mention their purchase of the ad purveyor DoubleClick, which allowed Google to make its search much more lucrative than the competition.
Returning to the case, we see that the DOJ chose to center its argument around the way Google attempted to maintain its market dominance. Thus, one of the major events it cites as evidence is the deal Google brokered with Apple to use their search engine as the default one across all Apple products and services. Google allegedly paid Apple eight to 12 billion dollars for that privilege, a sum that demonstrates just how lucrative the deal was. While one could argue that consumers can easily change their default search service, one ignores the fact that there’s no real incentive for them to do so. Google’s dominance—and purchases—have granted it an obscene amount of user data, which means everything in the world of search. Most competitors can’t stand a chance against Google’s access to all that data.
The deal Google and Apple struck here is therefore a damning one and a clear reflection of increasingly popular monopolistic practices among today’s tech giants. It’s not only these two companies—Facebook, for example, could be looking at both state and federal charges this November over their nearly unchallenged dominance over social media. In particular, legal probes are examining Facebook’s policy of buying out rival companies, sometimes to destroy them after the acquisition, in order to reduce competition.
This trend is a particularly troubling one. Taking away the choice for consumers to use the product that best suits their needs and instead striking deals that limit their choices in order to exclusively benefit the most powerful companies, runs contrary to the entire idea of the free market. I’m not saying that people hate using Google and are only forced to do so because it’s everywhere. There’s no doubt that Google is one of the most preferred search engines by Americans and arguing otherwise would be foolish. However, deliberately setting it as the default for all Apple products in order to maximize profits is meant to limit users’ perceived options for a search service, thereby precluding them from possibly choosing another company’s product that they like better. Even though this creates no monetary loss for users, it still counts as consumer harm and that is the very thing antitrust regulations are meant to prevent. The corporations behind tech products we view as household names today have grown increasingly comfortable with the clear dominance they enjoy in their respective markets, and that has led to their adopting increasingly anti-consumer practices in order to maintain their position. The antitrust legislation we have today exists for a reason, and it’s high time more of these companies were held accountable. This Google case is a start.
Srija Nagireddy can be reached at [email protected]