Earlier this month, we saw the biggest ever antitrust report released by the Subcommittee On Antitrust, Commercial And Administrative Law Of The Committee Of The Judiciary of the US Congress. This report carried the committee’s recommendations on whether the big tech companies such as Google, Apple, Amazon and Facebook are violating the antitrust laws. It is a massive report, 449 pages in total, and it roundly criticizes tech companies for creating monopolies. Earlier this week, as a follow-up to the report, the US Department of Justice filed a lawsuit against Google, claiming that the search giant maintained a monopoly over search. Google stands accused of cobbling together partnerships, including the Google Search on Safari deal with Apple, to maintain its overall monopoly. But hang on. This isn’t exactly new, is it?
In the complaint, the Department of Justice refers to how Google maintained its search and search advertising monopolies by entering into exclusivity agreements that forbid preinstallation of any competing search service, entering into tying and other arrangements that force preinstallation of its search applications in prime locations on mobile devices and make them undeletable, regardless of consumer preference, entering into long-term agreements with Apple that require Google to be the default – and de facto exclusive – general search engine on Apple’s popular Safari browser and other Apple search tools as well as generally using monopoly profits to buy preferential treatment for its search engine on devices, web browsers, and other search access points, creating a continuous and self-reinforcing cycle of monopolization.
This is the yet again that Google is being questioned about the search monopoly. A few years ago, the Federal Trade Commission conducted a 2-year investigation into Google’s search business, but nothing really came out of it. Google has called this lawsuit “deeply flawed”. In fact, Google has a point-by-point rebuttal of the points raised by the DOJ in its complaint.
Google says that for Apple devices, by default, it is not an exclusive arrangement. With screenshots of how Safari works on Apple devices including the iPhone and the Macs, the company points out that Bing and Yahoo! pay to be featured in the same way as Google is featured in the Safari browser by default. Google pays Apple around a reported $12 billion every year to make Google Search the default across all iOS devices but has argued all along that the search business is indeed very competitive, and it has competition from rival search engines including Microsoft Bing, DuckDuckGo and Yahoo!, to name a few.
They also point out that Google search or any other Google product aren’t preloaded on Microsoft Windows 10 devices because Microsoft preloads the Edge web browser with their own Bing search engine as default. Bing is also the default search for the search bar in the Windows 10 taskbar on the desktop for all Windows 10 PCs.
Google points out that on Android devices, phone makers and carriers are free to preload various apps on the phones that they sell—in fact, these apps often compete with Google’s own apps and services that are part of the Google Android package. They point to the example of Samsung Galaxy phones, which preload the Samsung browser (rival for Google Chrome), the Samsung Galaxy Store (rival for the Google Play Store) and the Bixby assistant (this competes with Google Assistant). Samsung also has a partnership with Microsoft which sees the Microsoft Outlook email app preloaded on the Samsung Galaxy phones—this is a competitor for Gmail. Google also points out that a user can change the default search engine in the browser, download another search app and set their preferred search app as a widget on the phone’s home screen to quickly access it.
It has been argued that while Google doesn’t monetize the OS in licensing deals with phone makers, the licensing agreements do allow phone makers access to Google’s suite of apps including Gmail, Search, Chrome, Google Maps, YouTube and the Play Store. And Google requires that phone makers must preinstall and prominently place these apps on the phones they make and sell. “Documents show that Google executives knew that conditioning access to Android and to Google’s suite of apps on the prominent placement of Google Search would disrupt existing partnerships between mobile network operators and rival search engines,” notes the committee.
It is perhaps a very telling statement when Google says, “This isn’t the dial-up 1990s, when changing services was slow and difficult, and often required you to buy and install software with a CD-ROM. Today, you can easily download your choice of apps or change your default settings in a matter of seconds—faster than you can walk to another aisle in the grocery store.” This is just the latest chapter in the US Government’s attempts to restrain the Big Tech companies, including Apple, Amazon and Facebook.