Why the Government Is Suing Google

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The U.S. government sued Google on Tuesday claiming that the company is an illegal monopoly. My colleagues called it “the government’s most significant legal challenge to a tech company’s market power in a generation.”

This legal case is going to be loud, confusing and will most likely drag on for years. More confusing lawsuits against Google from U.S. states are probably coming, too. What will be most important to remember are the big questions at the heart of this: Does Google break the rules to stay on top? And if so, does that hurt all of us?

So, yes, this is about politics and legal minutiae, but ultimately this case boils down to whether the technology that we use could be better, and whether the American economy could be more fair.

And through all this drama, I have a lingering question: Is the government suing Google because the government itself wasn’t doing its job?

All of the activity that the Justice Department now says is evidence of Google maintaining an illegal monopoly over search and search advertising has been known for years and could possibly have led to a crackdown by agencies like the U.S. Federal Trade Commission and the Justice Department. Those agencies are responsible for keeping watch on companies for signs of potentially abusive behavior.

And yet, under both Democratic and Republican presidents in recent years, Google faced few substantive government enforcement actions for anything it did that made the company stronger and harder to unseat. If you let your kid act up again and again without consequences, should you be surprised that it keeps happening?

In Tuesday’s lawsuit, the Justice Department accused Google of shutting out rivals through tactics like paying phone companies and others to ensure that Google’s web search engine has a prominent position on Android smartphones and on iPhones. This behavior, the government lawsuit said, holds back competition that could make better products for all of us.

But this activity hasn’t been a hush-hush conspiracy cooked up in underground bunkers at Google headquarters.

We’ve known for years that Google pays Apple billions of dollars each year to make sure its search engine is the one that people encounter on their iPhones and in the Safari web browser. It’s not a secret that Google had contracts with phone companies that required them to include Google apps on smartphones and make its search engine practically inescapable.

The European Union’s antitrust regulators fined Google over similar tactics in 2018. The E.U. required changes to Google’s behavior, although some competitors have said they are ineffective.

Reading the U.S. government’s lawsuit, I was mostly left wondering why it’s happening now. Almost all the substantive allegations about Google abusing its power could have been made — and were — years ago. The E.U. case, which started in 2015, dredged up very similar facts.

Novelty is not required to prove that Google is an illegal monopoly, of course. But still, if the lawsuit is treading on familiar ground, why did it take so long?

And again, could the F.T.C. or the Justice Department have stepped in to ask hard questions about this behavior before now? Would that have slowed Google and prevented the need for a Big Bang and risky lawsuit to try to change what the company does? (Google said on Tuesday that the government’s lawsuit is “deeply flawed,” and that people use its online services because they choose to.)

There are, to be sure, complex legal questions involved here. The government can’t just declare that Google stop doing stuff like this just because it makes the company stronger. But I do wonder if more effective oversight by every corner of the government in the last decade would have done with less fuss what this antitrust lawsuit is trying to do — kept Google from tilting the game to its advantage.

In recent conclusions of a congressional investigation into the power of big technology companies, lawmakers who normally disagree about everything did agree on one thing: America’s antitrust watchdogs have fallen down on the job. (To be fair, Congress should shoulder part of the burden here. It writes the laws that dictate what the F.T.C. and Department of Justice do, and it sets their budgets.)

House members said that the F.T.C. and others too often left unchallenged Big Tech’s pattern of getting more powerful by acquiring competitors, and that the agencies did not crack down when these companies broke the law and their word. I couldn’t agree more.

For one small example, look at what happened in 2013. The F.T.C. said that it was getting harder for people to tell the difference between regular web search results and paid web links on Google’s search engine. This risked hurting both those trying to use the site, and companies that had no choice but to spend more money with Google to get noticed.

The F.T.C. urged Google and others to make it more clear when people were seeing web search results rather than paid links.

What happened since that warning in 2013? Not very much. If anything, it’s gotten even more difficult to tell Google’s ads from everything else.

That’s one small example, and that activity wasn’t highlighted in the Justice Department lawsuit against Google. But it shows that big companies — if their behavior is unchecked — will continue to test the limits of their power.

For more from my colleagues: Steve Lohr explains what you need to know about the lawsuit against Google. And Brian X. Chen writes about how Google’s changes over the years have kept us in the company’s infinite loop.

  • If you’re getting a new iPhone, do not buy it because of 5G: Brian X. Chen, the New York Times consumer technology columnist, said the new iPhone 12 is a “solid upgrade” from past Apple models. But the phones are pricey, and people should not buy one expecting to be wowed by 5G, the latest wireless internet technology that is a big marketing pitch for the new iPhones.

    5G, simply, is a mess,” Brian wrote. “At this point, it should not be the primary reason to splurge on an expensive handset in a pandemic-induced recession.”

  • The job of election officials now includes fighting internet garbage: Colorado election officials are fighting back against false information about voting in unusual ways, my colleagues Nick Corasaniti and Davey Alba reported. They have said they would buy internet ads to pop up if people search Google about bogus rumors, and the state set up a disinformation fighting team led by a former U.S. counterterrorism official.

  • Maybe don’t take the advice of “MeRich4259”: Fake reviews on Amazon have been a problem for a while, but Bloomberg News reported that about 42 percent of 720 million Amazon product reviews in a recent analysis were suspicious — and the share has increased as people have shopped online more in the pandemic.

No big deal. Just a tiny, adorable owl dressed as a witch for Halloween in this TikTok video.

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