October 22, 2020

DOJ Sues Google

“The Justice Department on Tuesday sued Google for abusing its dominance in online search and advertising… The case filed in federal court in Washington, D.C., alleges that Google uses billions of dollars collected from advertisers to pay phone manufacturers to ensure Google is the default search engine on browsers. That stifles competition and innovation from smaller upstart rivals to Google and harms consumers by reducing the quality of search and limiting privacy protections and alternative search options, the government alleges…

“Google vowed to defend itself and responded immediately via tweet: ‘Today’s lawsuit by the Department of Justice is deeply flawed. People use Google because they choose to -- not because they’re forced to or because they can’t find alternatives.’” AP News

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From the Left

The left generally supports the lawsuit and calls for further actions to curb the power of big tech.

“Google responded [to the lawsuit] by saying that consumers can choose different browsers if they like. It has even released a set of videos showing how easy it is to switch. But everyone knows defaults are a key fulcrum for distribution – Google doesn’t pay Apple $12bn for fun…  

“Search and advertising are not mere products like cars or refrigerators; search and advertising represent the flow of information in a free society. America, and the world, has never seen this kind of radical centralization of information flow and ad financing… This case is bigger than just one market or one company; it’s about protecting democracy itself against concentrated private power.”
Sarah Miller, The Guardian

“The time to do anything substantive about the overwhelming power of the giant tech companies was very long ago. Instead, state and federal governments — on both sides of the partisan divide — charged with protecting small businesses and encouraging innovation did squat…

“It was in early 2013 that the F.T.C. commissioners decided unanimously to scuttle the agency’s investigation of Google after getting the company to make some voluntary changes to the way it conducted its business. This despite a harsher determination by its own staff in a 160-page report, which came to light in 2015, that Google had done a lot of the things that the Justice Department is now alleging, including that its search and advertising dominance violated federal antitrust laws. Which is to say, the government knew then and did nothing. Now it is finally taking action, but the question has to be asked: What does it know about all the others?”
Kara Swisher, New York Times

Luther Lowe, senior vice president for public policy at Yelp, states that Google “used to be 10 blue links and ads. And now there’s like this third category of content, and it’s just sort of like their house product. And the problem with that is it doesn’t go through the same kind of merit-based processes that everybody on the web has to go through… Let’s say I’m looking for a pediatrician in New York City… Google’s user interfaces, this map and the information being pinned to that map looks useful, because it’s businesses and ratings and stuff…

“But none of that stuff has gone through the standard organic algorithms. It’s just Google kind of pulling its own pediatrician reviews out of its back pocket. And what that leads to is people are just completely oblivious to the fact that you, if you scroll down the page, you’re going to get far richer reviews from services like ZocDoc, or RateMDs, or Healthgrades, or Yelp. And what ends up happening is like 80 percent of the people click on stuff that’s powered by Google. And they’re just unwittingly mismatched with this objectively lower-quality information.”
Ryan Grim, The Intercept

“The merits of the case themselves suggest a rush job. Google is a leviathan; critics have long complained of a litany of potentially problematic practices for authorities to scrutinize. And yet the Justice Department has chosen a focus that is not only narrow but also misplaced…

“The harm from Google’s dominance in search doesn’t come from merely the dominance itself. Rather, it comes from what the dominance enables Google to do. Google can use search to boost its own products in narrower markets, including restaurant reviews or language translation, or to extend its power over digital advertising. Congress should tackle these behaviors as it revises the antitrust laws, and authorities should scrutinize them as they seek to enforce the laws.”
Editorial Board, Washington Post

“One of Google's biggest strengths is the sheer breadth of data it has amassed, which is difficult to replicate… The paths forward for limiting the search power this data enables aren't so clear. One suggestion is to try to diminish Google's role in finding services for which there are strong competitors — think Yelp or Expedia. [Charlotte Slaiman, director of competition policy at tech advocacy group Public Knowledge] says US regulators could put in place measures that give users more direct access to those specialized services while pulling back Google's influence in reaching them.”
Rishi Iyengar, CNN

“Google’s use of scraping data off of third-party websites should be restricted. The act of taking other websites’ proprietary content without permission to keep users on Google’s properties doesn’t seem fair… The lawsuit, while a good start, is only the opening salvo in a legal battle that will extend well into the next administration, regardless of the winner of next month’s presidential election.”
Tae Kim, Bloomberg

From the Right

The right is skeptical of the lawsuit.

The right is skeptical of the lawsuit.

“American antitrust laws are broadly written, and the prevailing legal standards have changed over the years. The dominant and most economically sensible approach to enforcing these laws, however, remains the one that Robert Bork laid out in the 1970s: ‘Anticompetitive’ behavior becomes a problem when it harms consumer welfare. In our view, officials should not pursue antitrust actions unless they can compellingly show a company is, in fact, harming consumers — not just that it is doing everything it can to attract consumers to its product at the expense of the competition…

“Is it harmful to consumers for Google to pay other companies to feature its search engine as the default? That’s a hard case to make, because it’s generally easy for those who prefer other search engines to change the default, as Google and the alternative engines are all free and switching can be achieved in a few clicks; because these lucrative arrangements help to subsidize the devices consumers use; and because most users would probably choose Google anyhow, if its runaway success over the past two decades is any guide.”
The Editors, National Review

“Consumers can easily download other browsers and search engines if they don’t like Google’s, unlike in the 1990s when they had to buy special software or jump through hoops to use an alternative to Microsoft’s. Now most general search engines and web browsers are free. Microsoft’s Bing even pays consumers rewards for using it. Where is the consumer harm?…

“No doubt Google wields enormous digital and political clout, and not always for the public good. We’ve criticized its censorship of conservative videos on YouTube and its profiting off news content produced by others. There’s a case for antitrust scrutiny. But Justice is going to need more evidence than it has released in this lawsuit to prove that it’s the Standard Oil of the internet.”
Editorial Board, Wall Street Journal

“The growth of the internet platforms was entirely different [from other industries]. They have developed internally by offering network benefits—the more people and organizations join, the more useful the network is for everyone. All of us benefit, consumers and sellers, when Google expands its search capabilities. Similarly, all connected to the internet benefit when Amazon expands the range of products it sells and ships. That is how the big four gained large market shares. By contrast, there were no similar network benefits from the aggregation of oil refineries or steel mills by single companies…

“While the Justice Department acknowledges the benefits from Google’s possession of scale in the operation of its search engines—according to the Justice Department’s complaint, ‘scale is of critical importance to competition among general search engines for consumers and search advertisers’—the lawsuit nonetheless attacks Google’s scale and the means it used to acquire it, such as revenue-sharing agreements with rival browsers. This internal contradiction—criticizing Google for achieving a scale that helps consumers and sellers—leaves the Justice Department in an awkward position…

“The complaint doesn’t demand a coherent remedy. The elimination of Microsoft’s similar restrictive agreements 20 years ago had no effect either on the success of Microsoft at the time or its inability today to compete with Google, but this complaint doesn’t even go there. It asks merely for ‘structural relief as needed,’ as well as attorneys’ fees and costs. The Justice Department doesn’t show, in the slightest, a way to enhance consumer and seller benefit beyond the services provided by Google.”
George L. Priest, Wall Street Journal

“In terms of advertising revenues, while Google brings in far more than Facebook or Amazon, recent reports show that, far from being stifled by Google, Amazon’s ad revenues have been increasing substantially at the expense of both Facebook and Google. In other words, competition in the internet advertising market remains alive and well…

“The anti-trust hammer should not be unleashed at this time and in this manner to punish a company that, while imperfect, has changed dramatically and positively the way people all over the word perceive and use information, information being the real currency of the 21st Century.”
Bob Barr, Townhall

“Google’s near-monopoly should worry Americans, and this lawsuit may be a step in the right direction. Even so, Americans should also worry about a government take-over of Big Tech. Antitrust actions against Google may be necessary, but if politicians and regulators get their hands on the kind of power Google possesses, the prospects might be far worse than the threat Google currently poses.”
Tyler O’Neil, PJ Media

A libertarian's take

“It’s not as though Google makes most of its money selling you ‘Internet search’; it gives that to you free, and it monetizes it by selling your eyeballs to advertisers. Google has a pretty impressive position in the online ad market, too — almost 30 percent, by some estimates. But that’s not a monopoly, and its closest competitor, Facebook, is not far behind. Moreover, both are facing stiff competition for those dollars from other tech firms…

“The government’s complaint avoids this uncomfortable fact by defining that market extremely narrowly, as the market for ‘search advertising.’ But, of course, advertisers don’t care whether they’re advertising on search or social media, as much as they care whether their advertising is generating more in sales than it costs them. As long as other firms can also deliver large numbers of eyeballs online, Google will be forced to compete, hard, for business.”
Megan McArdle, Washington Post

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