The antitrust case against Google brought by the Department of Justice (DOJ) and several state attorneys general begins today. This is the first of the major cases against the “big tech” companies to go to trial.
But are these cases really about protecting the consumer, or are they more a political move by regulators? Furthermore, what is actually at stake in this case?
The case against Google was initially brought under the Trump administration but has continued under President Joe Biden’s Department of Justice. The case claims that Google is dominant in search (including specialized search) and search advertising. The government frames its case to claim that, despite the presence of other competitors like Bing and DuckDuckGo, Google has obtained monopoly power and is using that power in anti‐competitive and harmful ways, such as obtaining default search engine status on various devices.
The problem is that a successful case against Google may help its competitors but harm consumers.
The real question should not be if Google has been more successful than the alternatives, but whether it achieved this success through a superior product or anticompetitive means. Consumers choose Google largely because they consider it a better product, not because they have been manipulated into choosing it as their option for search. After all, one of the most popular search queries on Bing is consumers looking for Google, illustrating that it is not by force but through consumer choice that has led to its popularity.
The same can be said for the “specialized search engines” referenced. Consumers can easily use Google to locate other platforms, such as Yelp, to search for reviews. Even on the hotly contested issue of mobile phone defaults, choosing another default search engine is only a few clicks away.
The timing of this case, however, may mean that by the time it is decided, innovation may have proven to be a better form of competition policy by disrupting the current vision of the underlying market. While Google has been put on trial, generative AI innovations, such as OpenAI’s ChatGPT, are already changing how we search for information. Such innovations, not legal trials, are also very likely to help Bing outcompete Google due to its linkage to ChatGPT.
Antitrust cases are not particularly fast, and technology can move rapidly during that time. For example, by the time the famous antitrust case against Microsoft had concluded, the market was significantly more mobile‐focused and the so‐called “browser wars” were largely over.
Unfortunately for consumers, Microsoft’s antitrust battles made it less able to focus on competing in the mobile operating system space. It is impossible to yet know what similar choices a company like Google may face or the deterrent factor such actions by the DOJ might be having on companies entering markets where they might be able to benefit consumers.
Antitrust actions should not be based on the presumption that big is bad. They should be firmly based on consumer welfare. When it comes to search engines, choice is rarely more than a few clicks away, and innovation is often our best competition policy.