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Antitrust: Google’s dominance is challenged in court

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The Justice Department’s landmark suit against Google probes an “unlikely union” with Apple that’s 15 years in the making, said Daisuke Wakabayashi and Jack Nicas at The New York Times. Attorney General William Barr’s agency had numerous ways to advance its antitrust argument against Big Tech. It chose to home in on the alliance between two behemoths, Apple and Google, as “a prime example of Google’s illegal tactics to protect its monopoly.” Google’s placement as the default search engine on Apple’s iPhones — not just on the Safari browser but on “virtually all searches on Apple devices” — “has rarely been discussed by either company.” But according to the DOJ, Google pays Apple between $8 billion and $12 billion annually to put Google search at “the center of consumers’ online lives.” The arrangement, prosecutors argue, throttles competition and innovation and forces advertisers to align with Google’s “search domination.” Apple might not emerge unscathed, either, said Tim Higgins at The Wall Street Journal. “Google’s payments account for up to a fifth of the iPhone maker’s overall profit.” In return, the agreement gives Google more than a third of all its U.S. search traffic.

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The DOJ specifically evoked the 1998 antitrust suit against Micro­soft, said Steven Levy at Wired, but the cases are not really very similar. In the Microsoft suit, prosecutors “uncovered a vast trove of emails affirming Microsoft’s bullying behavior, particularly in extorting computer companies to use its browser.” At the time, companies had to acquiesce because Microsoft’s operating system “was basically the only game in town.” In 2020, there’s no one company that rules technology the same way. All Google is accused of doing is paying billions of dollars “to give its search engine a prime slot.” For all the hoopla, the lawsuit “barely bothers trying to offer a theory of consumer harm,” said Elizabeth Nolan Brown at Reason. The DOJ’s “big beef with Google is basically that it’s big, as well as useful, stubbornly popular, and extremely profitable.” That might play well with Google’s many foes, but it faces an uphill battle in court.

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Kudos to Barr for at least attempting to rein in Big Tech, said Kara Swisher at The New York Times. But this action is “akin to closing the proverbial barn door not only after the horses have left but also after those now billionaire horses have trampled over key parts of the economy and society.” The government saw that Google was violating antitrust laws as far back as 2013, when a Federal Trade Commission investigation was scuttled by its commissioners. Having waited so long, the U.S. has no silver bullet to solve this. The irony here is that we should root for Barr if “America ever hopes to transcend the underlying forces that made Trump possible,” said Franklin Foer at The Atlantic. ­YouTube publicized the message of the alt-right and QAnon; Google’s search helped fake-news publications gain traction; and “Google’s capture of the advertising market precipitated the destruction of journalistic institutions.” Cutting down Google’s power may finally mark a path back to “a healthier information ecosystem.”

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This article was first published in the latest issue of The Week magazine. If you want to read more like it, you can try six risk-free issues of the magazine here.