One of the biggest tech news stories of recent months emerged when the US Department of Justice announced that it’s going to take search giant Google to court, alleging that it has violated antitrust laws in a monopolistic fashion. According to statements reported by the New York Times, “nothing is off the table” in terms of remedies, including potentially breaking up parts of Google, a fairly standard approach for cases of this type.
That’s assuming that the DOJ wins the case, and as with all legal matters that could take years to conclude, because not shockingly Google’s said that it’s going to fight the case. That’s where it gets interesting for Australian users of Google’s services, which is pretty much everybody who searches, uses an Android phone or Google-specific services such as Google Maps or YouTube.
Google isn’t the first big tech company to fall foul of US law, with Microsoft infamously being pursued over anticompetitive bundling practices in the late 1990s and early 2000s. That was a case that the DOJ ultimately won, but Microsoft didn’t end up being split up, at least in part because the length of time it took for the case to wind through the courts meant that a lot of the arguments around matters such as bundling an Internet browser had been rendered somewhat moot because the Internet had moved on.
Google may well be in a different position this time round – the Internet absolutely is all of its business and it’s constantly iterating to stay on top of technology movements and changes, as well as investing heavily in external applications and companies that it sees as either complimentary or competitive to its own business. That’s got to be at least part of the DOJ’s point, but it’s a reality that a lot of Google’s projects, both purchased and developed in-house don’t stick around all that long. There’s even a website where you can track defunct Google products, the Killed By Google site.
Google’s not likely to kill off products if it does ultimately lose its case, and it’s not assured that this is what the DOJ would seek, with much of its argument relating to contracts around search specific functions, such as the deal it has with Apple that sees the iPhone maker paid $8-$12 billion a year to remain the primary search platform on iOS. There are alternative search engines out there, such as Microsoft’s Bing or privacy-centric DuckDuckGo, but when you’re the primary preinstalled platform and many folks don’t even consider what service they’re using, it’s got to be pretty hard to get any kind of market traction there.
It’s further complicated by the fact that Google itself reorganised a few years back with different business units, including its search engine under an umbrella corporation called Alphabet. This isn’t a case that will resolve quickly, and the Google that exists by that time could be quite a different company. We’ve seen similar, albeit smaller moves here in Australia through efforts such as the ACCC’s news media code for example.
While crystal ball gazing in technology is a dangerous matter – back when the Microsoft/DOJ case first emerged Google didn’t even exist after all – it doesn’t take too much psychic energy to suggest that Google will both fight this in the courts and the court of public opinion, and while this is a US case, there’s no doubt that effects of losing such a case would ripple through Google product offerings. A huge part of the reason that it’s so big and influential right now is precisely because it can leverage the data we give it every time we search or use its products, whether that’s a direct Google web site search, a Google Maps search or even chasing down the latest viral video on YouTube.