Has Google’s monopoly on the search engine market finally timed out?

<span>Photograph: Nathan Howard/AP</span>
Photograph: Nathan Howard/AP

Although you’d never guess it from mainstream media, the most significant antitrust case in more than 20 years is under way in Washington. In it, the US justice department, alongside the attorneys general of eight states, is suing Google for abusively monopolising digital advertising technologies, thereby subverting competition through “serial acquisitions” and anti-competitive auction manipulation. Or, to put it more prosaically, arguing that Google – which has between 90% and 95% of the search market – has maintained its monopoly not by making a better product, but by locking down almost every avenue through which consumers might find a different search engine and making sure they only see Google wherever they look.

Why is this significant? Basically, because the US government has been asleep at the wheel for almost a quarter of a century and has finally woken up to its democratic responsibilities. The last time it stirred itself to take on an aggressive monopolist was in 2001, when it sued Microsoft for illegally tying its Internet Explorer browser to Windows as part of a (successful) campaign to destroy Netscape, maker of the first distinctive commercial web browser, which Bill Gates and co perceived as a potentially lethal competitive threat. In an eerie echo of that earlier lawsuit, the justice department is now accusing Google of similar tactics – for example, illegally tying the company’s search engine to its Android smartphone operating system and its Chrome browser. And the government is seeking to break up the company, just as it once sought to break up Microsoft.

The parallels between the two cases are striking. In 2001, for example, Microsoft Windows had 93% of the global market for operating systems. In 2023, Google has 92% of the market for its search engine.

In the 1990s, Microsoft had been slow to appreciate the significance of the web and was late to the market with a mediocre browser – Internet Explorer – much inferior to the Netscape alternative. But if you were a manufacturer of PCs in those days, you couldn’t get a licence to install Windows on them without also bundling Explorer, making the Microsoft browser the default, which was about as anti-competitive as you could get.

Where Google has the power, it makes its search engine the default; where it doesn’t, it uses money

Now Google, according to the justice department, is also in the default-setting game. Where it has the necessary power – as with the Android operating system that it controls, or its now-dominant Chrome browser – it makes Google’s search engine the default. Where it lacks ownership, it uses money – for example, paying $10bn a year for privileges such as making Google the default search engine on Apple iOS. How Google squares this lavish expenditure with its insistence that the dominance of its (free) search engine confirms its excellence is one of the intriguing mysteries of the trial. Is Apple taking Google for a lucrative ride? Or is Google worried that if it were not the default search, iPhone users might, er, defect?

As well they might. In its early days, Google’s search engine was a breath of fresh air, so much so that some people divided internet eras into BG (Before Google) and AG. But over the years, it has morphed into a laughable betrayal of its co-founders’ original high-mindedness about the evils of advertising. In 2020, a randomised trial found that Google-associated results (ads for, or links to, the company’s other services) constituted more than 60% of the “first screen” – what is visible initially on a smartphone – of an average Google search result. And in one of five searches, the entire first screen was Google results.

I gave up using Google years ago, but even occasional visits have tended to confirm its decay, which is understandable given that 57% of its revenue now comes from search ads. Google is going the way of all monopolists, morphing from innovation into rent-seeking. A bit like Microsoft, in other words, before the latter discovered AI.

There is, however, one big difference between the 2001 Microsoft case and the one now in progress in Washington – the absence of media coverage. Back when Microsoft had its back to the wall, the trial was widely covered by mainstream media. But the Google case is getting relatively little airtime. In part, this may be because there is, alas, zero public interest in antitrust. But events so far suggest a more worrying explanation – namely, the apparent deference of Judge Amit Mehta to Google’s neurotic demands to keep as much as possible of the evidence presented in court out of the public eye.

Early in the proceedings, for example, he denied a third-party motion to broadcast a publicly accessible audio feed of the trial. As a consequence, the hearing is only available to people who can attend in person. And even if you can attend, as the writer and former policymaker Matt Stoller reports on his BIG newsletter, “it’s hard to see the trial because huge portions are fully sealed”. This is no way for a democracy to go about checking unaccountable corporate power. Justice needs to be seen to be believed, even if Google disagrees.

What I’ve been reading

Old news
Sara Mansutti reveals a fascinating history in News as Objects: The Materiality of Handwritten Newsletters. Read it on the Euro News Project site.

A Musk read?
Elon Musk and the Infinite Rebuy is a searing critique by Dave Karpf on his Substack newsletter of Walter Isaacson’s biography.

Back in the USSR
The Red Bourgeoisie is a great Substack memoir by Branko Milanović about elites and inequalities in the days of the USSR.