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Monopoly I: (Re)Normalizing Bad Arguments—USA v. Google

Neither I nor my firm own shares in Google. I do not have any ties to (nor do I desire to be an apologist for) Google. This piece is the first in a series which uses the topic of monopolies to discuss consequences of faulty and often partisan arguments. Foremost, when you use bad arguments for your purposes today, what happens to you when your opponents use them tomorrow.

On October 20, the United States Department of Justice with eleven states filed an antitrust suit against Google. There might be plenty of legitimate cases the Justice Department could pursue against Google. They are certainly the most opaque of the big tech companies with the most access to our sensitive data and messages. A more imperceptible issue: they are one of the few big tech firms, outside of Microsoft and Apple, not run by a founder (i.e. no clear person where “the buck stops”). Claims against Google’s browser and other proprietary technology, however, loom tenuous. The case seems less directed at substantive overreach than an effort to bring Google down a notch for the sake of the slightly-less-big-tech. If the Justice Department really believes the problem is Google placing services on its own software or paying billions to Apple for default positioning, they would have been better off spending the taxpayer dollars on a browser awareness campaign.

Google did not reach the top for lack of competition. Even non-tech savvy persons are by now familiar with search engine options. Mainly Bing and DuckDuckGo. The problem is these search engines are perceived less effective. For instance, I made a basic search error and assumed the case was against Google’s parent Alphabet. (Thanks to Firas Cheaib for catching my error.) The search “United States v. Alphabet” produced vastly different results in Bing relative to Google. Bing provided me a list of U.S. states and territories. Strikingly, nothing pops up about the case just filed. When I searched with Google I got exactly what I was looking for.

The Justice Department’s case hangs on a number of flimsy points. Deputy U.S. Attorney General Jeffrey Rosen, as quoted by the Wall Street Journal,[1] said while “no one begrudges” Google’s early success, if antitrust laws are not enforced “we could lose the next wave of innovation” and may not have another Google. However, it’s not clear what this means. The presumption that Google is hindering the “next wave of innovation” flippantly disregards their vast usefulness to so many entrepreneurs. Jack Dorsey of all people, launched a $1b COVID-19 relief effort in… Google Docs.

The government mentioned the company’s requirements of having its own search and other services on Google’s Android operating system as if it should not put its services on its own software. Really? Also per the Journal, the lawsuit included accusations that Google tried to avoid antitrust scrutiny and told employees speak cautiously in public and private. Each of these points strike at the heart of a broader problem — the willingness of partisans to cloak feeble accusations as legitimate; to twist conditions for one’s purposes; to rapidly overwhelm with spurious points.

In a most striking admission, the article reports that most of the yelling and screaming is coming from competitor complaints, including Wall Street Journal’s owner News Corp. The case is not about the working class. It’s a catfight between tech of a certain size. Where the Justice Department could have gone after Google on, say, its lack of transparency or its ad practices or its dealings with foreign governments, it chose to effectively declare Google is not permitted to perform so well — not allowed to be so much better positioned than their well-funded competitors. This is not a case about consumer choice or what is best for society at large.

Update: On Friday October 30th, three days after this piece was posted, a judge asked the Justice Department if they would be expanding on their claim of antitrust violations. Their answer was no.

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