The Antitrust Lawsuit Against Google

Government Information, Information Access, Privacy

By: Holly Eberle

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There is a massive amount of news, all day, everyday. You may have missed this, but I assure you it is important. In any other year, this would be the top news story for the day: The Justice Department brought an Antitrust Lawsuit against Google. 

The defense rhetoric coming from Google is that the antitrust lawsuit will stifle innovation, when in fact the purpose of the Sherman Antitrust Act was to allow for more market competition. Stifling innovation has been the argument against Antitrust Laws for the past hundred years or so. And yet, somehow Google was able to become a company with those laws firmly in place. 

The problem is not merely that Google has become the best at what it does thanks to capitalism. The problem is that Google may be intentionally dominating the market through misconduct. An example of such misconduct would be paying off Apple to have Google be the default search engine for all Apple devices. The payoff is sizable enough to make up 15-20% of Apple’s profits; we are talking about roughly $8-12 billion here. This is one example among many listed in the Justice Department’s complaint. This is different from conducting a business with integrity. 

Image of Standard Oil Company trust Certificate signed by John D. Rockefeller
Image of Standard Oil Company trust Certificate signed by John D. Rockefeller. 

According to the Washington Post, Google holds about 90% of the US market for search queries. In this case, a lawsuit from the Justice Department is not unprecedented. President Teddy Roosevelt and his Justice Department went after The Standard Oil Company in 1911 for less of a market hold (80%). History also reveals the example of the American Tobacco Company, who had an Antitrust Lawsuit brought against them in 1907 after buying out competitors until there were none. The American Tobacco Company technique was selling cigarettes at prices so low, it destroyed smaller companies who could not afford to sell at such a low price. You may recognize this business tactic because it is Amazon’s as well.

Amazon brings us to the rest of the Tech Industry. The Antitrust Lawsuit against Google will have wider ramifications across Silicon Valley. What those ramifications are is yet to be seen. The late 1800s and early 1900s were a pivotal point for the industrial age. We find history repeating itself in the early days of our internet reliant information age. The complete 20th Century lays between the Sherman Antitrust Act of 1890 and now. The 20th Century pushed the United States into a global superpower standing, so I am not quite sure about the slightly stale argument that Antitrust Laws stifle American innovation. 

This news comes just days after the story broke that Google has been giving away keyword search data to police. Court documents show that the usual legal system may be bypassed by police requesting a complete list of names for a keyword search. If police were asking for the search history of one individual, they would need a search warrant. If they ask Google for a list of IP addresses connected to one specific keyword search (example: an address), they do not need a warrant. Google declined to comment on how many keyword search lists they have given to police departments over the years. 

I understand how easy it must be to dominate a market that you yourself basically spearheaded. That being said, Google has been involved in so many legal battles over the years for a myriad of online issues. Information professionals all have this love / hate relationship with Google because despite the usability of their products, their information ethics issues just keep piling up. 

Perhaps a Justice Department Antitrust Lawsuit could be a good thing? No one is calling for Google to be split into several companies. The Justice Department is asking the courts to consider what they call “structural relief” for Google. Only time will tell what that actually ends up meaning. And it could be quite a lot of time, as these types of lawsuits tend to drag on for years. This may be a slow burn, but it will be one to pay attention to. 

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