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Google slams ‘deeply flawed’ anti-trust lawsuit in US

Admire Moyo
By Admire Moyo, ITWeb's news editor.
Johannesburg, 21 Oct 2020

Internet search giant Google has slammed the anti-trust lawsuit filed against the company by the US government, saying the litigation is “deeply flawed”.

Yesterday, the US Department of Justice – along with 11 state attorneys general – filed a civil anti-trust lawsuit in the US District Court for the District of Columbia to stop Google from unlawfully maintaining monopolies through anti-competitive and exclusionary practices in the search and search advertising markets and to remedy the competitive harms.

“Today, millions of Americans rely on the Internet and online platforms for their daily lives. Competition in this industry is vitally important, which is why today’s challenge against Google – the gatekeeper of the Internet – for violating anti-trust laws is a monumental case both for the Department of Justice and for the American people,” said attorney general William Barr.

The department said as one of the wealthiest companies on the planet, with a market value of $1 trillion, Google is the monopoly gatekeeper to the Internet for billions of users and countless advertisers worldwide.

It added that for years, Google has accounted for almost 90% of all search queries in the US and has used anti-competitive tactics to maintain and extend its monopolies in search and search advertising.

As alleged in the complaint, the department notes Google has entered into a series of exclusionary agreements that collectively lock up the primary avenues through which users access search engines, and thus the Internet, by requiring that Google be set as the pre-set default general search engine on billions of mobile devices and computers worldwide and, in many cases, prohibiting pre-installation of a competitor.

“As with its historic anti-trust actions against AT&T in 1974 and Microsoft in 1998, the department is again enforcing the Sherman Act to restore the role of competition and open the door to the next wave of innovation – this time in vital digital markets,” said deputy attorney general Jeffrey A Rosen.

Eye-level shelf argument

However, in response, the Internet search giant says the lawsuit by the Department of Justice is deeply flawed.

“People use Google because they choose to, not because they’re forced to, or because they can’t find alternatives,” says Kent Walker, senior vice-president for global affairs and chief legal officer at Google.

“This lawsuit would do nothing to help consumers. To the contrary, it would artificially prop up lower-quality search alternatives, raise phone prices, and make it harder for people to get the search services they want to use,” he adds.

According to Walker, the department’s complaint relies on dubious anti-trust arguments to criticise the company’s efforts to make Google Search easily available to people.

“Yes, like countless other businesses, we pay to promote our services, just like a cereal brand might pay a supermarket to stock its products at the end of a row or on a shelf at eye level. For digital services, when you first buy a device, it has a kind of home screen ‘eye-level shelf’.

“On mobile, that shelf is controlled by Apple, as well as companies like AT&T, Verizon, Samsung and LG. On desktop computers, that shelf space is overwhelmingly controlled by Microsoft.

“So, we negotiate agreements with many of those companies for eye-level shelf space. But let’s be clear – our competitors are readily available too, if you want to use them.”

Walker adds that Google’s agreements with Apple and other device-makers and carriers are no different from the agreements that many other companies have traditionally used to distribute software.

“Other search engines, including Microsoft’s Bing, compete with us for these agreements. And our agreements have passed repeated anti-trust reviews.”

He points out that Apple features Google Search in its Safari browser because it says Google is “the best”. “This arrangement is not exclusive – our competitors Bing and Yahoo! pay to prominently feature, and other rival services also appear.

“Changing your search engine in Safari is easy. On desktop, one click and you’re presented with a range of options,” says Walker.

‘This isn’t the dial-up 1990s’

He explains that Apple’s iPhone makes it simple to change settings and use alternative search engines in Safari – and it’s even easier in iOS14, where a user can add widgets from different providers or swipe on the home screen to search.

Walker also notes that Google doesn't come preloaded on Windows devices but Microsoft preloads its Edge browser on Windows devices, where Bing is the default search engine.

On Android devices, he says Google has promotional agreements with carriers and device-makers to feature Google services.

According to Walker, these agreements enable Google to distribute Android free of charge, so they directly reduce the price that people pay for phones. But even with these agreements, he says, carriers and device makers often preload numerous competing apps and app stores.

“The bigger point is that people don’t use Google because they have to, they use it because they choose to. 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,” Walker says.