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posted on 2020-10-20 20:40:00 .
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The Justice Department today filed a landmark antitrust case against Google. The hotly anticipated, long-awaited lawsuit accuses Google of using its market dominance to force unfair contract terms on suppliers and competitors to the detriment of competition and the marketplace.
The suit might just be the biggest thing in antitrust since the DOJ sued Microsoft in the 1990s… or it might not. Even though the investigation that led here has been going on for 16 months, a suit like this is the beginning, not the end, of the process. So here’s everything we know—and more importantly, everything we still don’t—about what this blockbuster case really means.
What does the suit allege?
The complaint (PDF) lays out the case that Google used “exclusionary agreements and anticompetitive conduct” to become dominant in the search marketplace, and then kept abusing that market dominance to prevent nascent rivals from gaining enough of a toehold potentially to become real competition.
The suit is focused on Google’s search business, including search advertising and “general search text advertising,” which the DOJ alleges the company has “monopolized” for more than a decade.
“For years, Google has entered into exclusionary agreements, including tying arrangements, and engaged in anticompetitive conduct to lock up distribution channels and block rivals,” the DOJ writes in the suit. It goes on:
Google pays billions of dollars each year to distributors—including popular-device manufacturers such as Apple, LG, Motorola, and Samsung; major U.S. wireless carriers such as AT&T, T-Mobile, and Verizon; and browser developers such as Mozilla, Opera, and UCWeb—to secure default status for its general search engine and, in many cases, to specifically prohibit Google’s counterparties from dealing with Google’s competitors. Some of these agreements also require distributors to take a bundle of Google apps, including its search apps, and feature them on devices in prime positions where consumers are most likely to start their internet searches.
Although there are alternative search engines in the world, such as DuckDuckGo or Bing, the DOJ argues that Google’s scale and anticompetitive behaviors have at this point made its dominance insurmountable without intervention.
Google’s full response claims that the DOJ filed “a deeply flawed lawsuit that would do nothing to help consumers.” Consumers, however, aren’t the major target of the complaint. Competitors are. The complaint does not particularly address potential harms we, the end consumers, may experience as a result of this monopoly. Instead, it focuses on all the harms Google has allegedly done to other businesses in the digital supply chain.
Just search, though? That’s it, really?
That’s it, really. The DOJ’s lawsuit is pretty narrow at this time and mainly focuses on just one of Google’s sprawling business ventures. There are, however, plenty of other Google behaviors to complain about.
For example, a blockbuster report released earlier this month by a House Judiciary subcommittee found not only that Google was abusing its power in the search market but also that it was abusing its control over the digital advertising market. Google achieved its dominance through a series of acquisitions it lied about, the House alleged, and also through illegally tying other apps, products, and services into the Android platform. The House report also cited the intertwining of Chrome, Google Maps, and Gmail into each other and into other Google services as anticompetitive behavior.
Previous probes into Google’s behavior have also taken issue with a much wider array of anticompetitive behaviors. In 2013, the company reached a settlement with the Federal Trade Commission in which it agreed to “change its business practices” across several segments of its sprawling business to avoid being sued for antitrust violations.
Two years later, however, The Wall Street Journal obtained a 160-page internal FTC document from the investigation leading to that settlement. The document showed that the agency’s competition bureau found Google “used anticompetitive tactics and abused its monopoly power in ways that harmed Internet users and rivals.” Agency staff recommended taking stronger antitrust action against Google at the time, but the commissioners decided that asking Google to behave better, instead of going to litigation, would result in faster change and less harm to competition and consumers.
DOJ officials declined to tell press in a call if they plan to add additional allegations to the existing suit or even file additional suits down the line. But they did confirm several times that their investigations into Google and other major digital platforms are still ongoing, implying that there’s room for additional complaints if the DOJ decides the evidence merits it.
So is Google going to get broken up?
It’s definitely possible—but also definitely not at all guaranteed. DOJ officials did not say they were looking for a breakup, but they also didn’t rule it out. “Nothing is off the table” is all they would say.
The suit is very vague about what specific relief the government seeks. As a start, the DOJ asks the court to rule that Google broke the law and to order Google not to do anticompetitive things anymore. It then also asks the court to “enter structural relief as needed to cure any anticompetitive harm” as well as any relief “necessary and appropriate to restore competitive conditions in the markets affected by Google’s unlawful conduct.”
In general, “structural remedies” tend to imply divestments or breakups—you’re literally changing the structure of the company to fix the problem. (In contrast, “behavioral remedies” imply requirements for or against specific behavior, as often seen with merger conditions.) The case is likely to be extremely long and complicated, and by the end of it, the court may determine that, yes, Google needs to be broken up to restore competitive conditions… or it may not. At this point, guessing that outcome is Magic 8 Ball territory.
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