Curious 20th century web surfers used search engines including AltaVista, Ask Jeeves and WebCrawler to gather information. In the 21st century, users can learn about those now-defunct sites via Google.
The ubiquitous search engine, so dominant that its name became a verb, is on trial in federal court in Washington, D.C., accused of maintaining its massive edge by breaking U.S. antitrust law. The government says it blocks rivals via contracts with phone and wireless providers, using its status as a default search engine to gather data that dwarfs any potential rival’s.
Google has countered in part that it holds its lead over the likes of Bing and Yahoo because it continues to provide the superior service with which it took over the market in the first place.
Centering the monopoly case against a tech giant is the Sherman Antitrust Act of 1890, said James Ivory, a media studies professor at Virginia Tech.
“The question of whether they broke the law, one thing that makes it challenging is it’s a law that’s 130 years old,” Ivory said. “It’s not that it’s obsolete, but not unlike the Constitution, it can be challenging to apply to such things as search engines, when it was designed for steel magnates” and others.
U.S. Steel, Standard Oil Co. and other Gilded Age players were “minnows” compared with today’s tech giants, Ivory said. While their products brought in cash and helped them develop real estate, Google’s product yields cash and helps it develop something newer: data. You use the search engine for free, but the company learns more about you from each search, with the outward goal of improving user experiences.
As data flows in, bolstered by the engine’s position on smartphones, Google continues to build strength that holds off competitors, the government says.
That’s where another Virginia Tech professor comes into play. Google will call one of the university’s computer scientists, Edward Fox, to give expert testimony, The New York Times reported on Sept. 18. The paper reported that Fox has conducted what it called a “data reduction experiment” for Google, to estimate whether its search quality would decline if it used, say, the amount of data available to its distant second-place competitor, the Microsoft-owned Bing.
“The result, according to Google’s filing, was that the data difference explains only part of the gap in search quality between Google and Microsoft,” reporter Steve Lohr wrote in the Times article.
Fox, who graduated from Cornell University in 1983 with a master’s degree and a doctorate in computer science, researches fields including data analytics, information retrieval and human computer interaction, according to his Virginia Tech faculty page. Fox said through a university media relations representative that he has not yet testified and is unable to do interviews.
On the massive Blacksburg campus, Ivory and Fox know each other only by reputation, Ivory said.
The trial began Sept. 12 and is scheduled to last about two months. Multiple sources report that Judge Amit Mehta is scheduled to deliver his decision next year. A penalty phase, if necessary, would follow even later.
Fox’s experiment is part of a legion of factors that will make trying the case a complicated proposition.
“Day to day, we often think of ‘did you break the law’ as pretty cut-and-dried — [driving] too fast, taking something that’s not yours,” Ivory said. “This is a more abstract situation, applying a very old law to see if we have monopolistic practices to inhibit fair competition. That makes it a very subjective process for everybody involved.”
With an unpredictable outcome, open questions remain on what affect any decision will have on other tech companies and their customers.
“If the judge rules that Google did break the law, we don’t know [the penalty]. They might just say that they need to cease the behavior,” Ivory said. “They may force them to sell some assets.”
The Department of Justice has been eyeing Google and other tech businesses for years, Ivory said, but it wasn’t until 2020 that the Trump administration filed a case related to search.
“This is probably the rare example of bipartisan agreement,” he said. “I think the DOJ is probably more consistent from administration to administration than people think. And then in 2023 the DOJ added search advertising practices to the case against Google.” The search advertising case is not part of this trial.
Observers have framed this trial as the most significant antitrust case against a big tech firm since 1998, when the Department of Justice took Microsoft to court for using technical requirements with personal computer builders to solidify its domination in the operating system market.
A judge in 2000 ruled against Microsoft in that case, ordering the company split in two, but the Court of Appeals in Washington rejected much of the ruling and removed Judge Thomas Penfield Jackson from the case for talking to reporters. The appeals court vacated the breakup ruling, and prosecutors settled with Microsoft without forcing it to break up. The appeals court let stand Penfield’s ruling that the company was behaving as a monopoly.
“The Microsoft case was instrumental in creating a market environment favorable for the emergence of the biggest companies today, such as Google and Apple,” according to a Corporate Finance Institute article.
The current Google case centers on the company acting as a monopoly to stifle its own potential competition.
“There’s a poetic balance of symmetry there, that Google in many ways really did rise up on its own in an environment where other tech giants dominated search,” Ivory said. “Microsoft was involved heavily in search at that time. Then Google popped up with this very small, streamlined, simple search service and also popped up with this company motto, ‘Don’t be evil.’ Now they are being accused of preventing the next Google from rising up and accused of potentially being evil.
“I think to borrow the old phrase, it sort of swings in roundabouts, where you see these companies following the Silicon Valley stereotype of being small and in a garage and all the romantic notions, then they end up being big companies that are trying their hardest to keep someone else from beating them from their garage.
“And DOJ’s got a tough job trying to decide if that’s business or if that’s crime.”
Along with new charges against Google, federal authorities have other cases in the works, he said.
“We definitely know that Facebook, or Meta, and a lot of other Google products [including Maps], are very close to facing a similar charge from the DOJ. It’s widely reported,” he said. “And of course the other tech giants — Amazon, Apple — are certainly relevant to this decision. What happens to Google will be important, but the precedent will be very important because it will tell us what may happen next to some other companies.”
Consumers, enthralled with convenience, might not see a problem with Google, but they also might not realize the potential of competition.
“You don’t need to know about a business practice for it to affect your life, and I think that’s kind of the big story here,” Ivory said. “This case is kind of a symptom of a world we live in now that’s not going to go away, where some of these companies are very close if not over the line in being more powerful than our government. So some of these cases help define the line between democracy and oligarchy, really.
“But regardless of the outcome of this case, we’ll continue to see the Department of Justice and … the legislature looking close … because societally, we’re on a real knife edge here with these giants providing services that have never existed before, but they have more power than companies have ever had before in the history of the earth, in many ways.”