Angst over President Donald Trump should not cloud judgment of a new federal antitrust case against Google.
In announcing the case last week, Trump’s Department of Justice launched a new era of antitrust enforcement to rein in excessive control that giant digital platforms have over life and commerce.
This is vitally important, long overdue and must continue during the next presidency.
There is bipartisan support for regulatory enforcement, prompted by widespread concern about unfair competition and a lack of transparency and accountability by these platforms.
While Google, Facebook and other platforms provide valuable services and jobs, they must not abuse their dominant positions, stifle competition and harm consumers and other companies.
The DOJ asserts that Google unfairly protected and expanded its monopoly.
“For years, Google has entered into exclusionary agreements, including tying
arrangements, and engaged in anticompetitive conduct to lock up distribution channels and block rivals,” the filing states.
That followed a blistering Oct. 6 report by the Democrat-led House Judiciary Committee, alleging ways that Google, Facebook, Apple and Amazon abuse their dominant positions. That should lead to additional enforcement actions and regulatory reform.
House Judiciary Chairman Jerrold Nadler, D-N.Y., struck the right tone, praising the DOJ case as “an important step for ensuring a competitive online space.”
Nadler reiterated that “antitrust laws are a critical bulwark against concentrations of economic power, and robust enforcement of the antitrust laws is paramount for safeguarding both a healthy economy and vibrant democracy.”
Still to come are anticipated cases against Facebook by the Federal Trade Commission and against Google by a coalition of state attorneys general, beyond the 11 who initially joined the DOJ case.
Washington Attorney General Bob Ferguson, a Democrat, is participating in the Google investigation but wouldn’t comment on the situation last week.
The DOJ case focuses particularly on ways Google protected its monopoly by making its search engine the default on computing devices.
This presents an opportunity for states to broaden the case and further address anti-competitive conduct in the advertising and online content markets. Harms in this space — such as Google misappropriating others’ content — were detailed by the House report.
Google disputed the DOJ assertions, stating that it’s easy for people to switch search engines. Another argument is that companies like Apple benefit from huge payments Google makes to secure pole position on its devices.
The last major tech antitrust case, against Microsoft in 1998, similarly focused on lengths the Redmond-based company went to make its browser the default on PCs.
Once again, the issue is a software company aggressively maintaining its dominance by controlling the era’s primary gateway to the internet.
Google showed this can be the world’s most profitable turnstile. While the company put “don’t be evil” in its original motto and strove to not repeat Microsoft’s mistakes, it’s hard to resist the temptation to unfairly defend and exploit such a position.
The DOJ filing notes the parallels: “Back then, Google claimed Microsoft’s practices were anticompetitive, and yet, now, Google deploys the same playbook to sustain its own monopolies.”
Everyone should benefit from this enforcement.
After Microsoft’s ability to protect its monopoly was limited, innovative new competitors emerged and largely displaced Microsoft’s browser, particularly Google’s Chrome browser.
Microsoft was checked but not hobbled. Arguably, it’s stronger since it was forced to compete fairly and put more emphasis on opening its platforms and less on defending its stronghold.
The antitrust case took a toll, and Microsoft lost momentum for years. But today, it’s thriving in new markets, beyond its Windows monopoly.
Now, as another generation of monopolists exerts unfair control over essential technology, it’s time for government to step up again.
The DOJ case against Google is a welcome launch of this new era of antitrust enforcement.