If you’ve so much as glanced at the web this week, you’ve likely heard about a lawsuit the Department of Justice (DOJ) filed against Google announced Tuesday morning. The suit, which accuses Google of “using anti-competitive tactics to maintain and extend its monopolies in the markets for general search services, search advertising and general search text advertising,” signals the start of a battle between the government and big tech.
But what does it mean for consumers? Here, we sift through the legal-speak and get to the basics.
The two main players in the suit are the DOJ and Google, plus eleven attorneys general that have joined as additional plaintiffs on behalf of their respective states. Additional states are conducting independent Google probes and may choose to join the lawsuit later or initiate their own.
After a year-long investigation, the DOJ claims Google stifled innovation, negatively impacted the quantity and quality of consumers’ search choices, and compromised consumer data privacy. Google allegedly paid mobile device manufacturers and wireless carriers billions of dollars to secure and maintain its place as a default search engine across countless programs and devices. Over time, it’s come to control roughly 80% of general search queries in the US—meaning the company controls the information and advertisements most Americans consume when they perform an online query. Per the lawsuit, this type of gradual monopolization is in violation of anticompetitive precedent set by the DC Circuit in United States v. Microsoft nearly two decades ago. The case determined that anticompetitive agreements that restricted distribution channels for rivals were “exclusionary and unlawful under Section 2 of the Sherman Act,” a federal antitrust law.
What happens next?
Unsurprisingly, Google immediately rejected the DOJ’s claims. “The DOJ’s deeply flawed lawsuit would do nothing to help consumers,” the company claimed in a Tuesday tweet that linked to a longer statement. Based on the tweet’s replies, consumers aren’t buying it; after a few years of continued drama surrounding Google’s private data collection and security breaches, it appears the public is skeptical of the company’s practices.
The legal system is infamous for moving at a snail’s pace, and it may be years before it is decided whether Google has in fact violated any laws aimed at preventing monopolies. As a result, it will be a while before Google faces any disciplinary action—if it even comes to that. Previous lawsuits against Google have forced the company to pay hefty fines; while the DOJ hasn’t yet specified consequences or remedies, some suspect that if “found guilty,” the company will be forced to break its Internet empire into smaller entities.
What does this mean for consumers?
Again, it’s unlikely that the public will see any actual changes take place for quite some time. That being said, some consumers may find it interesting—refreshing, even—to monitor the impact a lawsuit like this may have on the way we experience web search and digital advertising. Though not a focus of the DOJ’s complaint, the suit does mention that Google’s evolution has resulted in users being inundated with ads with every query. Businesses are required to pay wildly high fees in order to effectively advertise via Google, which means neither party (the business or the consumer) is exactly thrilled with their experience . . . but because Google is considered the default search engine, the DOJ argues that both feel obligated to endure the transaction regardless. If Google is forced to change its practices later in the legal process, consumers just might enjoy a slightly less ad-heavy online experience, and entrepreneurs might be able to more easily afford effective Google advertising.
It’s clear that Silicon Valley conglomerates are becoming a major governmental focus. Just two weeks ago, lawmakers on the House Judiciary Committee released a report accusing tech giants Apple, Amazon, Facebook, and Google of abusing their market power. Some accuse this move and the DOJ’s lawsuit of being politically motivated; others believe that the massive, super-scaled companies are finally getting theirs. Nevertheless, it won’t be surprising if tech monopolies keep finding themselves in the “politics” sections of their local papers.