A major bipartisan tech backlash is imminent– here’s what you need to know about the Google antitrust saga
Whilst the current President-elect of the United States has been relatively quiet about most technology policy yet, one thing is for certain: the first few months of his tenure will prove to be cardinal in determining the future of the Big Tech. The Justice Department of the United States has already racked up a barrage of high-profile antitrust lawsuits against every tech giant – Google, Apple, Facebook and Amazon, among others, and from the looks of it, this trend is only going to continue.
POTUS vs Big Tech?
In a revealing interview with the New York Times editorial board in January 2020, Joe Biden referred to tech executives of Silicon Valley as ‘little creeps’ with ‘overwhelming arrogance’ and made known his staunch desire to revoke Section 230, concurrently downplaying the ‘friendly’ ties that the Obama administration had with Silicon Valley (although, surprisingly enough, internet companies also ended up among his campaign’s top 10 donors).
A defining aspect of Biden’s presidency will thus be his handling of the Department of Justice’s landmark antitrust lawsuit against Google LLC. While experts stand divided on the robustness of the lawsuit, one thing all agree on is the fact that the lawsuit, will, for the most part, continue – and even possibly be strengthened with Biden’s ascension.
As hinted at earlier, Biden also has major plans to revoke Section 230 – the Communications Decency Act, which shields internet companies from liability for the content that they host. The Biden presidency is set to refocus the argument from a Republican-led discourse claiming anti-conservative bias at social media companies to how “these companies are too big and too powerful”.
Landmark Lawsuit – Google
The lawsuit follows a 16-month investigation process initially undertaken by the Trump administration, in its efforts to hold Big Tech accountable amidst unproven allegations of anti-conservative bias. Currently, the primary antitrust lawsuit against Google alleges that the company maintains an illegal monopoly in online advertising and search. Almost 80% of all search queries in the US are parsed through Google, with the allegations further claiming that it uses the tens of billions of dollars of annual profits to unfairly suppress competition.
The suit claims that Google maintains its advantage through exclusionary agreements worth billions of dollars, making it the de facto search engine on mobile devices, web browsers and emerging technologies such as voice assistants and IoT devices. Furthermore, the lawsuit singles out Google’s behaviour on mobile operating systems such as the Android OS, which, in spite of being free and open-source, is Google’s model of maintaining control through the ‘forced’ pre-installation of Google apps and revenue-sharing agreements with other companies that favour the Google model.
Creating and maintaining a search index that uses a web crawler (as in Google), requires “upfront investment of billions of dollars”, along with hundreds of millions of dollars in annual maintenance costs. This thereby effectively shuts out smaller competitors from entering the market, strengthening Google’s monopolisation of online search. Additionally, the DOJ reinforces that Google uses data collected from each user to monopolise online search advertisements as well, earning Google $40 billion a year – alarmingly, almost 80% of the total share of the online advertising industry.
The MIT Technology Review writes: “Despite these allegations, the Department of Justice is not explicitly looking to break up Google or impose specific fines. Rather, it is asking for “structural relief as needed to cure any anticompetitive harm.” In a press event, DoJ representatives noted that investigations into other tech companies were ongoing, and that it also had not ruled out further charges against Google.”
Google, however, has called the lawsuit ‘deeply flawed’, citing the fact that consumers use Google services because they wish to, not because they are compelled to. According to a statement on its website, Google claims that “this lawsuit would do nothing to help consumers. To the contrary, it would artificially prop up lower-quality search alternatives, raise phone prices, and make it harder for people to get the search services they want to use.”
How these proceedings go could have far-reaching implications in the way that we know and use the internet. Given the fact that historically such litigations have taken several years to come to fruition, a change in administration might just have been what the case needed. Either way, it’s going to be afew interesting months for Big Tech.