How the lawsuit against Google has already changed the world – analysis

Until Tuesday’s suit, Big Tech was beyond the rules

FILE PHOTO: A Google sign is shown at one of the company's office complexes in Irvine, California, U.S., July 27, 2020. (photo credit: MIKE BLAKE/ REUTERS)
FILE PHOTO: A Google sign is shown at one of the company's office complexes in Irvine, California, U.S., July 27, 2020.
(photo credit: MIKE BLAKE/ REUTERS)
The tech world is not the same planet that it was before Tuesday.
On Tuesday, the US Department of Justice filed a lawsuit, which in its broadest implications could lead to the breakup of Google and eventually other tech giants like Facebook.
No lawsuit since the 1998 case against Microsoft has carried similarly fateful consequences.
While Google, Facebook, Amazon and others are credited with providing a wide range of important services to billions of human beings across the planet, recent years have seen a dark side to some of their dominance.
If at one point, Google shared the search engine business with a variety of other competitors, the US lawsuit said that currently Google controls nearly 90% of all general search engine queries in the United States and almost 95% of searches on mobile.
It is hard to imagine the breakup of a company whose name has become a verb (go Google that for me) and is so dominant that children of a certain age do not even realize that there is a difference between the Internet and Google.
The potential sledgehammer to Google, with more major antitrade lawsuits against tech giants on the way, comes after major evolution in recent years.
Until around 2016, Google, Facebook and others were among the most beloved private sector companies around.
While nearly every industry had some kind of regulation and oversight, these companies were beyond the rules.
The logic was that they delivered such growth, innovation and had such progressive values that regulation was not only unnecessary, but could harm the US’s leadership as the world’s tech innovator.
Sure, sometimes they seemed to squeeze out smaller competitors, hotwire their products to be incompatible with others and looked the other way when their platforms were used for a variety of hate speech.
But all of that was allegedly uncontrollable (until a few years ago when they started controlling it), could be fixed by the market and paled in comparison to the good that they did.
At most, agencies like the US’s Federal Trade Commission would file narrower lawsuits, such as seven years ago, over alleged bias in Google’s search function to favor its products. That case was settled without requiring real structural change.
Giving them the benefit of the doubt ended with Russia’s social media disinformation campaign and the Cambridge Analytica scandal during the 2016 US presidential election.
The tide turned.
In March 2018, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg was hauled before the US Congress facing questions about why major regulation was not needed immediately.
Zuckerberg apologized for mistakes in mishandling the data of at least 50 million of its users and promised tougher protections.
“This was a major breach of trust. I’m really sorry this happened. We have a basic responsibility to protect people’s data,” Zuckerberg told CNN at the time.
But his plans did not mention a big reduction of advertisers’ ability to use Facebook data, which is the company’s lifeblood and did not address anti-competitiveness issues.
“It shouldn’t be for a company to decide what is the appropriate balance between privacy and innovation and use of data. Those rules should be set by society as a whole,” the British minister for digital, culture, media and sport, Matt Hancock, told BBC Radio at the time.
Some top experts have told The Jerusalem Post that Big Tech companies are built too structurally to avoid regulation to then be reformed, and suggested that governments subsidize new competitors, who would be set up with regulatory concerns in mind from the outset.
But what comes out of the US lawsuit is that Google and others are systematically making it impossible for new competitors to move into that space.
This means that whether it is oversight of their platforms being abused by Russia to cause broad social chaos, users’ privacy being violated or abuse of their platforms by terrorists, there is no incentive to address major problems other than reactively after a large scandal.
BY DECEMBER 2018, Google CEO Sundar Pichai was also hauled before the US Congress, like Zuckerberg before him, and in July of this year, a bunch of other top tech CEOs were bombarded with criticism by Congress.
Why then did the US government view an antitrust lawsuit as necessary?
Part of what became apparent during multiple rounds of congressional hearings, is that congressmen did not understand the hi-tech companies they were criticizing and hoping to regulate.
They could not keep up with CEOs’ explanations and also fell into traps of partisan squabbles about whose side hi-tech is on.
One congressman alleged that Google’s search algorithm consistently prioritizes its own sites, citing reports that 63% of web searches that start on Google end somewhere on Google’s own websites. He also claimed that Google had forced competitors to share content with it by threatening to delist their websites in Google Search if they don’t.
Pichai denied the allegations. He also said that currently people could search for things on a range of other platforms besides search engines, such as through Ebay, Amazon, Walmart or other companies in specific industries.
Some of the changing winds led to the EU fining Google $9.2 billion between 2017-2019 for stopping websites from using Google’s rivals to find advertisers, favoring its own shopping business in search, and blocking rivals on its wireless Android operating system.
But even these enormous sounding fines were a drop in the bucket for a trillion dollar company which still did not change the way it did business.
Some critics of tech companies say that either regulation or a break-up of the hi-tech companies alone would not be enough to change their behavior.
TOM WHEELER from the Center for Technology Innovation wrote in a Brookings Institute report that, “the abusive practices of the dominant digital platforms... have become so embedded that there is no single solution. What is needed is a cocktail of remedies that blends antitrust with ongoing regulatory oversight.”
He noted that legislation, court rulings and creating a new digital agency to adapt and enforce the long-standing common law duty of care to anticipate and mitigate adverse effects from a product would be the only way to establish broad behavioral expectations in the marketplace.
Breaking up the hi-tech giants might be necessary, but “breaking a big company into smaller parts does not ensure against the smaller companies developing their own abusive behaviors,” Wheeler wrote.
Ultimately, it is likely only with bipartisan support – which there currently is for the lawsuit – that a new balance and social contract with hi-tech companies can be struck.