Microsoft’s own antitrust odyssey is the most instructive. Much like Google Search, Microsoft’s Windows had a near-total monopoly in a crucial tech market — the operating systems that run desktop computers (the entire industry until the mobile era). The company had a history of taking ruthless actions to crush or copy competitors for its related products, including its Office suite of business applications like Word and Excel.
But it was only when Microsoft elected to use its existing OS monopoly to take over the new market for web browsing software that it got into trouble. The company bundled its own lousy browser, Internet Explorer, with versions of its Windows 95 and later updates, which were installed on most computers worldwide. Large payments followed to Apple, AOL, and other computing platforms to make Explorer their default browser rather than Netscape, with a senior VP alleged to have said Microsoft had “cut off Netscape’s air supply.”
It was an open-and-shut instance of monopolization. The Federal Trade Commission and the DOJ got involved.
The case went to trial, and the company suffered deep public embarrassment as claims by the company and by Gates during his notorious video deposition were directly contradicted by the company’s internal email trail. (It was during this period that Gates discovered the reputation-laundering powers of publicly posturing as a philanthropist.) After an arbitration attempt failed, the company was, in a rare development, formally declared a monopolist under the law and ordered broken up. Luckily for Microsoft, its appeal continued through the stolen 2000 election, and the George W. Bush administration’s DOJ dropped its goal of splitting up the company.
Instead, the federal government told the company to make various “behavioral” reforms, including allowing computer manufacturers to hide from view the Windows-bundled Explorer logo and include a ballot screen, later called a “choice screen,” where users could select among various commercial internet browsers.
The shortcomings of these behavioral changes were seen in 2011, when Microsoft released a Windows 7 update without the browser choice screen software. Hilariously, no one noticed for almost seventeen months, when the company was reported to the European Commission (EC). The commission would go on to fine Microsoft $733 million, about one percent of its revenue that fiscal year.
Microsoft’s outcome is likely a harbinger of Google’s eventual settlement — indeed, it’s reminiscent of the European Commission judgment against Alphabet in 2018. That case was based on similar charges of requiring Android operating system–using phone makers to pre-install the company’s search engine and browser as defaults, without which Google would not allow them to include the Google Play store for mobile apps, the main way Android users get applications. The EC fined Google and forced it to end the practice, and EU regulators then pressured Google to include choice screens for users in every EU country.
However, for a browser to appear alongside Google on the ballot, they must bid in an auction for a slot (reflecting the company’s love of using them in its advertising technology and elsewhere). Browsers like Bing and Yahoo, which collect user information to serve ads have far greater profits and resources to bid for ballot spaces, unlike smaller, privacy-centered browsers like DuckDuckGo. But this kind of wonkish policy outcome is quite possible for the US investigation of Alphabet.
Google was also investigated in the United States by the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) in 2013. That probe focused on search bias, meaning Google’s abuse of its dominant search position by down-ranking competing “vertical” search engines for trips and shopping. Considered a “close call” by FTC staff, no charges were brought, perhaps due to the company’s long-standing closeness to the Democratic party in general and the Obama administration in particular.
For all the rivers of digital ink being spilled over the Trump administration’s suspect Justice Department going after Google’s very real power-mongering, the limited scope of the suit, the constrained nature of US antitrust law, and Alphabet’s ocean of lobbying cash all suggest the chances of a dramatic outcome are vanishingly small. Alphabet’s stockholders have laughed off the suit so far. And it’s not hard to see why: it will likely take years, and the result will almost certainly be modest behavioral leashes.
Google’s market power over the flow of information in our society, along with that of its Big Tech rivals/partners, isn’t going anywhere — not unless we start to entertain bolder steps beyond the weak tea of antitrust.