Google under fire for getting too big

Tentacles: Google’s critics claim it smothers rivals and stifles innovation.

Should we break up Google? The US government has launched a landmark antitrust case against the tech giant. The verdict could completely transform the digital world as we know it.

Watch videos from anywhere in the world. Witness history’s finest paintings. Walk the streets of distant cities. By pressing down a sequence of keys, we can access more information than all the libraries of the world combined. All of these are currently available through Google. But in a few years, they might not be.

This Tuesday, the US Department of Justice filed an antitrust lawsuit against the tech titan. It accuses it of being a “monopoly gatekeeper for the Internet” and unlawfully undermining competitors. If successful, the American government could wield the Sherman Act to fragment Google into a cluster of smaller companies.

Google was founded in 1998 as a simple search engine. Since then, it has expanded far beyond this original function to encompass a massive, interconnected network of services.

People use Google Android phones, store files on Google Drive and find directions using Google Maps. There are 1.8bn Gmail addresses and 79% of Internet users have an account on Google-owned YouTube. Almost 66% use Google Chrome to browse the web. Hundreds of apps such as TikTok, nominally unrelated to Google, function by using Google’s cloud. Last year it reported $134.81bn in revenue, primarily earned through advertising.

These figures provide ample evidence for Google’s critics. Why should one corporation control everything – from the way we watch videos and send emails? “Today’s big tech companies,” argues US Senator Elizabeth Warren, “have too much power over our economy, our society and our democracy.”

This power is maintained in furtive ways. Smaller rivals are ranked lower in search results; large competitors are either bought up or brought on board. Google pays Apple $11bn a year to be the default search engine on its products. The result undermines our choice as consumers – by choosing Apple, we unknowingly choose Google as well.

And Google’s stranglehold may well work to the detriment of newer companies and fresh ideas. “If we let Google continue its anti-competitive ways,” claims US Attorney General William Barr, "we will lose the next wave of innovators.”

Google’s defenders would argue that its scale does not reduce our choice. “People use Google,” says the company’s chief legal officer Kent Walker, “because they choose to – not because they’re forced to.” More people choose to use Google because it provides the best product.

The company’s size bolsters its accessibility. It is because of Google’s colossal revenue that it can offer services like file storage, flight comparison and translation for free. Carve up Google into smaller companies, and these functions might come at a cost, excluding those unable to pay.

And even if Google is unethical, what good would chopping it up achieve? “Splitting the company in two,” explains Microsoft founder Bill Gates, “and having two people doing the bad thing doesn't seem like a solution.” We should instead forge laws to eliminate underhand practices from all companies.

So, should we break up Google?

Too many pies

About time, say some. The plucky upstart has become a fattened despot. Google exerts a hold over numerous aspects of our lives. It harvests our private information. It collaborates with other companies to stifle our freedom of choice. And it has erected a barrier that stops new, independent ideas from breaking through. By shattering Google into pieces, we can create a fairer field for others.

Stand down, say others. Google has swollen because of its extraordinary success. Who would penalise a business for succeeding? Google’s immense size allows it to provide a panoply of interconnected services that make work and leisure infinitesimally more convenient and does so free of charge. Besides, simply breaking Google up would provide no guarantee of good behaviour from its successors.

You Decide

  1. Is monopoly always a bad thing?
  2. Does having greater choice improve our ability to make decisions?

Activities

  1. List all of the ways in which you use Google’s services, then draw a diagram explaining how you would split these functions into three separate companies.
  2. Write an open letter from the perspective of a Google executive, responding to the lawsuit’s criticisms and laying out the ways in which Google has improved people’s lives.

Some People Say...

“Competition is not only the basis of protection to the consumer but is the incentive to progress.”

Herbert Hoover (1874–1964), 31st president of the United States

What do you think?

Q & A

What do we know?
It generally agreed that competition plays a central role in all market-based economies. For the 18th-century “Father of Economics” Adam Smith, competition between different businesses increased efficiency and enterprise, leading to more choice and lower prices – and ultimately raising a population’s standards of living. Although much debated and refined, these ideas remain the bedrock of modern liberal economics, practised in much of the world today.
What do we not know?
Debate persists on whether competition law is an effective way of reigning in big tech. American antitrust regulations were developed to prevent price-fixing; tech companies often offer their services for free. Past cases have been only partially successful. A 1998 US lawsuit ordering Microsoft to split was overturned. A recent spate of investigations against Google by the EU has resulted in the tech giant facing €8.2bn in fines but has not otherwise significantly curtailed its operations.

Word Watch

Antitrust
In the US, a set of laws that aims to prevent particular companies from gaining too much power in an industry. Internationally known as competition laws.
Monopoly
When a company has exclusive control of a commodity. Derived from the ancient Greek monopōlion meaning “right of exclusive sale”.
Sherman Act
An American law regulating competition that has been in force since 1890. It has previously been used to break up American Tobacco and Standard Oil.
Furtive
Attempting to avoid attention, from a French word for “thief”.
Despot
A medieval word for a ruler who exercises absolute power, by implication for the worse.
Freedom of choice
An individual’s ability to choose between two or more options without being constrained by other forces.
Panoply
An impressive collection of objects, once used to refer to a complete suit of armour.

Subjects

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