US Justice Department Files Lawsuit Against Google Over Anti-Trust

The US Justice Department has filed a lawsuit against Google allegedly for violating anti-trust laws. The move has sparked criticism.

For quite some time, there has been a vocal group of people who have been demanding that government “reign in” “big tech”. The target of their efforts have been the likes of Google, Facebook, Amazon, and Netflix. This in spite of so many other corporations out there that have been abusing market dominance in much more egregious ways (some examples people propose include big banks, the major record labels, and the consumer goods market).

In the early years, it was hard to really pinpoint why “big tech” needed to be “broken up”. As time went on, however, there have been examples where anti-trust concerns were, at least, credible. An example might be Facebook buying up competing services in an effort to retain its dominant position in the social media landscape. Another angle that can lead to a credible case might be ads. Have you ever tried running an ad based website without Google Adsense? The only alternative name we can think of is Taboola. That ad network is pretty patchy across the web compared to Adsense.

While the list of questionable tactics have been starting to stack up in recent years, there hasn’t been much in the way of action in North America. Europe is a slightly different story and anti-trust lawsuits have resulted in fines. Critics, however, point out that the legal actions haven’t really meant much in the big scheme of things.

The lack of action in North America has technically changed now that the US Justice Department have filed an anti-trust lawsuit against Google. From the CBC:

The United States Justice Department on Tuesday sued Google for antitrust violations, alleging that it abused its dominance in online search and advertising to stifle competition and harm consumers.

The lawsuit marks the government’s most significant act to protect competition since its groundbreaking case against Microsoft more than 20 years ago. It could be an opening salvo ahead of other major government antitrust actions, given ongoing investigations of major tech companies including Apple, Amazon and Facebook at both the Justice Department and the Federal Trade Commission.

“Google is the gateway to the internet and a search advertising behemoth,” U.S. Deputy Attorney General Jeff Rosen told reporters. “But as the antitrust complaint filed today explains, it has maintained its monopoly power through exclusionary practices that are harmful to competition.”

Based on the report, it’s admittedly a bit hard to follow the logic here. We’re talking about search engines here. Obviously, Google is quite popular on this front. It’s basically the starting point on how they became the huge company they are today. So, if there is exclusionary practices to prevent other people from going to the competition, where are they? What is Google doing to stop you from going to DuckDuckGo? The truth is, nothing really.

So, we decided to check out the press release from the Department of Justice. Part of that reads as follows:

As one of the wealthiest companies on the planet with a market value of $1 trillion, Google is the monopoly gatekeeper to the internet for billions of users and countless advertisers worldwide. For years, Google has accounted for almost 90 percent of all search queries in the United States and has used anticompetitive tactics to maintain and extend its monopolies in search and search advertising.

As alleged in the Complaint, Google has entered into a series of exclusionary agreements that collectively lock up the primary avenues through which users access search engines, and thus the internet, by requiring that Google be set as the preset default general search engine on billions of mobile devices and computers worldwide and, in many cases, prohibiting preinstallation of a competitor. In particular, the Complaint alleges that Google has unlawfully maintained monopolies in search and search advertising by:

  • Entering into exclusivity agreements that forbid preinstallation of any competing search service.
  • Entering into tying and other arrangements that force preinstallation of its search applications in prime locations on mobile devices and make them undeletable, regardless of consumer preference.
  • Entering into long-term agreements with Apple that require Google to be the default – and de facto exclusive – general search engine on Apple’s popular Safari browser and other Apple search tools.
  • Generally using monopoly profits to buy preferential treatment for its search engine on devices, web browsers, and other search access points, creating a continuous and self-reinforcing cycle of monopolization.

There’s actually a lot about this that sounds accurate on the surface, but are on much shakier ground then you might think.

An example that would fall into the “requiring that Google be set as the preset default general search engine on billions of mobile devices and computers worldwide” category might be web browsers. For those who use FireFox, yes, the default search engine to use is Google. This has been a long-standing thing. Our understanding is that Mozilla actually gets financial benefit from people who use Firefox’s built in Google search feature. You might think, “Aha! They are right!” Well, not quite.

You likely already know that FireFox isn’t the only browser around. There is also Microsoft Edge that Microsoft rams down Windows 10 users throats at every opportunity. What’s the default browser for Edge? Bing. Another Microsoft property.

At this point, you might be thinking, “But Drew, what about the people who use FireFox?” Well, part of the Department of Justice’s complaint is that Google is “prohibiting preinstallation of a competitor”. So, is it possible to change the default browser? Actually, yes. You can read how via the official documentation. Many search engines are present and can easily be switched to should you so choose.

Some of you might be saying, “But Drew, that’s just for computers. Part of the pres release points out mobile devices.” This is true. So, let’s take Android run mobile devices. Is it possible to change the default browser? Yes. In fact, Google even lays out how to do this. Yes, they encourage you to use Google for obvious reasons, however, they are quite open about the ability to switch search engines.

For those saying that iPhone’s are also a large part of the market as well, well, it’s more than possible to change the default search engine as well. This is neatly laid out on 9to5Mac.

At the very least, the evidence (which is easily researched) is all out there and points to some pretty big flaws in the Justice Departments press release. Had non of the above options existed in the first place, there might have been a case. As it stands now, the arguments we are seeing from the government are already on shaky grounds.

While there is certainly a technical aspect in all of this, we also have a political aspect to all of this too. At this point in time, we are in the midst of an election. The vote is set for November 3rd. As of now, that is two weeks away. Is that going to be enough time to really see this lawsuit to the end? Absolutely not. Some are saying that this has less to do with cracking down on monpolistic behavior and more to do with politics and electioneering. From TechDirt:

Again, that’s because this is being driven by cronyism and election season politics, not a serious concern about monopoly power. Worse, while the DOJ’s announcement will be applauded by well-intentioned folks eager to see Google’s power knocked down a peg, tackling Google’s domination in a politicized, half-assed fashion could actually make it harder to hold Google accountable down the line.

It’s really hard to pin down anything the Trump administration did that is significant outside of benefiting himself, his friends, or the Republican party. In naming the justices for the Supreme Court, Trump has, according to critics, stacked the deck in favor of conservative voices. Outside of that, what? Start a few ill-conceived trade wars that benefited hardly anyone? Ignored a pandemic that cost the lives of close to a quarter of a million American lives? Increased stock market volatility? Honestly, it’s hard to really think of anything Trump has done that’s really well and truly significant.

So, it’s easy to see this lawsuit as a last ditch “see? We did something!” effort. Honestly, after our analysis, we pretty much agree with that sentiment.

This is not to say that there are not market concerns with the largest tech players. In fact, we more or less alluded to one with Microsoft forcing it’s products on its Operating System users. Unfortunately, for people who want substantive action on this file, they’ll have to keep waiting because this is likely going nowhere in a hurry.

Drew Wilson on Twitter: @icecube85 and Facebook.

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