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Lawsuit against Google could leave iPhone, Android users with a new search engine

Google’s monopolistic practices in the search engine industry can lead to potential implications for consumers and the tech industry, says business columnist Daniel T. Young II.

The Department of Justice affirms Google is maintaining an illegal monopoly over the search engine industry as new lawsuit over antitrust laws emerges. (Illustration by Ojorumi Okoka)

Everyone is familiar with Google, but maybe not with how the tech giant forces itself into their day-to-day lives. It’s why the company is going into its second week of an antitrust lawsuit from the U.S. government.

U.S. and Plaintiff States v. Google, LLC (2020), which began on Sept. 12, is the result of an October 2020 effort between the Department of Justice (DOJ) and 11 state attorneys general alleging that Google engaged in monopolistic practices in the search engine industry. The lawsuit will take 10 weeks.

A win for the DOJ would mean a win in President Joe Biden’s antitrust agenda, possibly paving a path for his administration to dictate policy and future legal matters for the rest of his term. This could play into the government’s hands during the DOJ’s prior antitrust case against Google, announced earlier this year in January.

A government win may also change consumers’ relationship with Google when it comes to how easily they can access their services on the devices they purchase, and whether they can explore other search engine options.

Although many prefer to use Google, the lack of search engine options can be harmful. 

The DOJ argues that Google “has accounted for nearly 90 percent of all general-search-engine queries in the United States, and almost 95 percent of queries on mobile devices” for several years, alleging that Google pays “billions of dollars each year to distributors” for exclusionary agreements. These agreements guarantee Google’s search engine to be the default of different web browsers belonging to companies like Apple, Samsung and Mozilla, the DOJ says.

Consumers of Android products such as Samsung and Motorola may notice that their phones come packaged with Google services like the Play Store and the company’s web browser, Chrome. 

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DOJ documents also found that these agreements ensure pre-installation of these services on most Android devices which are impossible for consumers to delete, and prohibit pre-installation of “rival general search engines.” With Google owning Android, the company has control over the distribution of its operating system.

If Google’s services come pre-installed on your phone, chances are you can’t uninstall it.

In Google’s defense, Kent Walker, President of Global Affairs for Google and its parent company Alphabet, Inc., said that “​​Browser makers like Apple and Mozilla choose to feature a default search engine. They open competition for the default and pick the best search provider for their users. We compete hard for that placement so that users can easily access Google Search,” in a Sept. 8 press release.

The DOJ’s case is a testament to President Joe Biden’s anti-Big Tech remarks at this year’s State of the Union address when he said, “Let’s finish the job. Pass the bipartisan legislation to strengthen antitrust enforcement and prevent big online platforms from giving their own products an unfair advantage.” 

The DOJ’s initial announcement to press charges came shortly after a year-long investigation from the U.S. House found monopolistic misconduct in Big Tech companies.

Andrew Gavil, a professor of law at Howard University School of Law, is no stranger to antitrust law. Before becoming a professor at Howard, Gavil practiced antitrust law. Gavil is also a former Director of the Office of Policy Planning at the Federal Trade Commission, a US government agency that “enforces a variety of antitrust and consumer protection laws”.

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“The main antitrust statute that’s at issue in the case is the Sherman Act,” Gavil said. “Section Two of the Sherman Act prohibits monopolization… [It] does not prohibit monopoly. It prohibits monopolization.” 

“You could become a monopoly because there’s superiority, and the law of antitrust has long protected your ability to succeed because you are better,” Gavil said.

Meaning, that a company that becomes a monopoly from a natural lack of competition through innovation is fine, legally. On the other hand, a company that eliminates competition through artificial motives, such as exclusionary agreements, has engaged in monopolistic practices, violating the Sherman Act.

Gavil said, “Google is going to be saying ‘Look, we got as big as we did not because of these restrictive contracts, but because we are better.’ The government is going to say ‘No, this isn’t about you being a monopoly. It is about you monopolizing.’”

“The allegations are definitely serious,” Gavil said. “Whether the evidence will pan out is the big question.”

When it comes to consumers, Gavil says that a Google loss could cause mixed feelings when purchasing devices previously packaged with Google products.

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“We might not be able to buy phones easily with this package,” Gavil said. “Or we might be given a choice. And we could say, ‘Okay, I want this browser or I want this search engine.’ And some consumers would like that. Maybe others won’t like it very much at all, because they liked the convenience of having it all together.”

For now, the burden of proof is on the DOJ to prove that Google has violated the Sherman Act, and it is too early to come to a conclusion on how the case will go. 

Dr. Legand Burge, a professor in computer science at Howard’s College of Engineering and Architecture, as well as the executive director of Google Tech Exchange, the company’s partnership program with HBCUs and Hispanic-Serving Institutions, has made himself familiar with Google’s history and business model in his own time. 

Due to Google’s recognizability, advertisers have flocked to the company to publish their ads to attract users to their own services and outreach. For Google, search advertisements are their biggest revenue stream. 

Advertisers are “looking for pushing out their goods and services or products… so they need to advertise,” Burge said. “Then you have publishers, and the publishers are the people that own websites… apps, mobile apps, and so forth. The idea is, that Google provides the infrastructure to connect advertisers with publishers.”

Burge said that, through a real-time auction, advertisers can pay Google to display their advertisements, where the winning bidders can claim a spot for a particular ad. Advertisers also target keywords to be associated with them more often for outreach to users.

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“When you see advertising around the results of the search, those are paid advertisements that are relevant to the keywords,” Burge said.  “That’s where their biggest money is coming from.”

The DOJ’s research found that in the US, “advertisers pay about $40 billion annually to place ads on Google’s search engine results page.”

Google’s services are used every day by many Howard students, including sophomore Amirah Calamito.

“I think it’s just the most user-friendly. Compared to Apple, emails, and stuff like that, Google’s always the easiest,” Calamito, a finance major from New Jersey, said.

Jadon Gerald, a junior civil and environmental engineering major from Westchester County, New York has the same perspective. “I’m definitely not using Bing. Microsoft Edge sucks… My choices are definitely slim, so I think that Google has the most smooth search engine.”

Tye Compton, a senior political science major from Cincinnati said that Google “has the most information” and “it’s very easy to find stuff there.”

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Gerald, who uses Mozilla’s Firefox browser with a default Google search engine, and Compton, who uses Chrome, both expressed concerns with the company’s practices and how it conducts itself.

“I think people should be more aware of Google and other companies tracking your data because at the end of the day, right now, it might not be a big deal. But with additions of AI and technology, it can become an issue over time,” Gerald said. “Every time they search up something, every time they go on an app, every time they use a product, data’s being siphoned.”

Compton said, “Given Google has been in trouble for other situations, especially when it comes to diversity and racism amongst AI and their software, I think it’s a concern and it kind of jeopardizes a lot more than we think.”

Gerald would be open to an alternative search engine if Firefox made one, and Compton if a company such as Apple were to make a better competitor than Google’s.

Copy edited by Alana Matthew

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