What Is the Point of the DOJ Case Against Google?

When you go to find something on the internet, do you go to Google or Yahoo! or Bing? How about DuckDuckGo or Neeva (RIP)? Have you even heard of the last two? I tried Neeva — I even considered paying for it — and I tried Bing when its AI product came out. They were all useless compared to Google.

A current trial centers on this issue. The U.S. Department of Justice is suing Google because, they claim, it’s a monopoly. The prosecution will tell you that Google blocks competitors from showing up on phones. This is a red herring.

Back to my question: Do you type into your browser www.bing.com and look things up? Even if Bing is the default search engine on your phone, browser, or operating system, many people open up a new tab in their browser and type in www.google.com.

Why? Because it is the superior product, and everyone knows that. That’s why it has better than 90 percent market share in search, even after more than 20 years of competition. It’s why every marketer I know places ads in Google Search and doesn’t even bother with the other search engines.

This is the defense’s position, and it’s why I side with Google in this case.

It’s also eerily similar to another antitrust case involving another Big Tech monolith: Microsoft.

What happened

In United States v. Microsoft Corp., settled in 2001, the DOJ argued that Microsoft bundled its Internet Explorer browser to its PC operating system Windows. It was the default browser, requiring users to download other browsers like Opera and Netscape, crowding out the latter from the market. The initial ruling found that Microsoft was a monopoly, while an appeal partially overruled that judgment. Microsoft later settled.

Economists, one of whom was my professor, were called to the stand to testify as expert witnesses. They argued against two key themes: path dependence and lock-in.

Path dependence refers to the idea that the choices made in the past, even if they were arbitrary or based on specific circumstances, can have an ongoing effect on future outcomes. In the context of antitrust cases like the one involving Microsoft, path dependence suggests that once this dominant player established itself in the market, it became difficult for competitors to displace or challenge its position.

Economic lock-in refers to a situation where customers are effectively “locked in” to using a particular product or service due to various factors such as high switching costs, network effects, or habit. Once a customer becomes accustomed to using a specific product, it becomes difficult or costly for them to switch to an alternative option.

My professor argued that there is no case in which these circumstances occur in real life. That includes Microsoft, and in the new case, Google.

Consider Apple Maps. Maps was installed as the default map app on all iPhones. But if you’ll remember, it was terrible. Like really, really bad. Tim Cook, Apple’s CEO, even apologized for it being so bad.

So what did everyone do? We downloaded Google Maps. And we all moved on with our lives. Why did we do that? Because it was the superior product.

That was Microsoft’s defense in the 1990s and early 2000s, and it’s Google’s defense now. Microsoft created a great operating system bundled with a great browser, and Google created a great search engine bundled with umpteen useful and free tools that all interact with that search engine.

Why it matters

This is an important case because it gets to the heart of what a business provides to a society, and the proper functioning of markets to enable that business to provide that benefit. If Google is restricting access to better products and services that would net-benefit humanity, then they should be punished.

Yet this is also a silly case. Google is by far the superior search engine, and it provides users with loads of products that make everyone’s lives better off. Think of Gmail, YouTube, Docs, Sheets, Slides, Calendar, Drive, Meet, Home, and many more. If there were a better search engine out there, we’d be using it.

However, if we want to talk about a monopoly, we could talk about licensing requirements mandated by the government that shut people out of their livelihoods. We could talk about the FDA shutting out otherwise safe, effective drugs that could save lives. We could talk about medical boards restricting the number of doctors, raising the price of healthcare. We could talk about a president who was picketing alongside unions this week, negatively influencing the public’s perception of businesses. We could talk about non-compete clauses shutting people out of potential opportunities. We could talk about internet providers, or the lack thereof.

Who’s really the monopolist here? Perhaps there are bigger fish to fry than a search engine.

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