Google has become such a staple in the lives of US consumers that that its difficult to even imagine what life without Google would even look like Just to be sure you’re fully aware of how deeply into your own daily life Google’s tentacles reach, lets look at few of their products:
Obviously, Google is the most used search engine --- by a lot. Estimates put Google’s share of the search engine market at 70-75%, and as high as 85% of all mobile traffic. With a majority of all internet research going through their platform, it can be argued that the Google algorithm really does control our perception of reality, at least here in the States.
Being the most used search engine makes Google the most visited website in the world as well. But that’s not enough for Google; they’ve also got to have the number 2 spot, with YouTube. The second most popular site is also the most popular video sharing platform --- and once again, by a vast margin.
Of course, the internet, and consequently, Google, are being used more and more, thanks to the rising popularity of smartphones. So in the interest of utter dominance, it was a crafty move for Google to corner the mobile market. They own Android as well.
Like other Google products, the next most competitive product is not even in the same league as Android. Among all operating systems (mobile and desktop), Google has over 50% of market share. That leaves Windows and iOS and anybody else to scrap over about 50% between them all. But that’s nothing compared to Android’s market share in mobile OS, estimated to be 75%.
So let’s look at this again: Google owns the most used OS in the world, which comes with integrated apps of their own products, like Google search, Maps and YouTube. In modern versions of Android, these apps can’t be uninstalled. They also control the Google Play Store. This means that they get to control which apps are available for safe and easy download. So is it coincidence that their products happen to be the most popular in the world?
Now, to be fair, Google search is the most effective, most user friendly product in its domain. So is YouTube, and so is Maps. So it can be argued that Google products always dominate because they’re superior. But it seems unlikely that Google would have the ability to favor their own products, and not use it. Isn’t that what they’re doing when they don’t allow you to remove their own apps from your Android phone?
That very thing is what the DOJ built an anti-trust case against Microsoft for in the 90’s --- favoring their own product, Internet Explorer, in their Windows operating system.
So is it a problem?
Make no mistake, Google is a conglomerate. But part of the reason they’ve gotten so big is that they offer connectivity and convenience. To users, who seem to have increasingly short attention spans with each passing year, Google is offering an extra layer of value with the connectivity of all their products. One Google account covers all your favorite online products: Gmail, YouTube, Google search, Maps and anything else you might use from Google; it can also sync to your social media accounts (currently not owned by Google), so you don’t have to spend 15-30 precious seconds logging into those. Talk about convenience.
If there’s one thing modern consumers want, its convenience. And if there’s one thing Google understands, its their users. The nature of their business model is to understand the user, arguably better than any other company ever has. They do it by collecting data about you.
Your data and preferences are seamlessly transferred from platform to platform, so each algorithm can show you the content that Google has decided is best for you. Oh, and also so they can target you with your own personal collection of ads. In turn, these ads lead to revenue and analytics for Google.
Analytics is really Google’s calling card. User data is the currency they use to cater their products so that they can most effectively indulge/exploit users and advertisers. Google and other online products are building a profile of you, for the sake of better monetizing your attention. So its a privacy concern. But as much as we talk about privacy concerns as a society, nobody really acts like they’re that concerned about it. I mean, admit it: you don’t read the full terms and conditions agreement when you create an account on a new app.
Its really up to each of us to decide if we’re concerned by it. The point of bringing this all up is to illustrate how much Google has woven itself into the fabric of our everyday lives. If any company is the internet, its Google. At least, in the US.
So all this, presumably, is why the DOJ has been building an anti-trust case against Google since early2020. And this month (October 2020) is allegedly when DOJ Attorney General Bill Barr has instructed the team to pull everything together and file charges.
What might come of it?
As its currently an ongoing investigation, no details have been released on what the charges against Google might be. There’s a few a few possible outcomes, based on legal precedents and existing anti-trust laws.
In one of the most famous anti trust cases in US history, Standard Oil Company was broken up into 34separate companies in 1911. This was done under the premise that they had made a monopoly of the oil market, through both horizontal and vertical integration. The reason that this is a problem is that, theoretically, prices could or would have been artificially inflated, and innovation would have been slowed. We’ll never know.
What we do know is that the oil infrastructure that Standard Oil created has stayed more or less the same since, except for innovations on drilling and processing. The only impact on the consumer is that prices and quality have theoretically been protected. Interestingly enough, the oil industry is once again run by conglomerates, though its arguably not a monopoly at this time.
Another high profile case was that against Microsoft in the 1990’s, which concluded with sanctions on the company that critics have made out to be a light slap on the wrist. Indeed, Microsoft Windows remains one of two major operating systems for desktops in what sure looks like a duopoly. But proponents will argue that the OS market was never the subject of the case; it was the internet browser market that was being manipulated. And in the years since the ruling, other browsers have emerged and been competitive, like Apple Safari and, interestingly enough, Google Chrome.
Its worth noting that between Microsoft’s two currently used browsers, they hold less than 10% market share. Chromedominateswith49.3% as of March 2020. Safari is second with 31.6%. Edge and Internet Explorer combined make Microsoft a distant third. There are a plethora of other browsers available, as well.
The point is, the infrastructure laid out by Microsoft hasn’t changed. These browsers are identical in so many ways, that it seems fair to say that Microsoft determined the structure of the internet, and Google built on it. But would Google ever have done what it did if Microsoft had never faced sanctions?
Microsoft ceded their dominance of the internet to Google. They created an OS, and then a browser, for Google to gain traction and take the crown from them. Now, Google finds themselves in the same shoes as Microsoft 20 years ago.
With just Google search and YouTube alone, Google has an incredible amount of control over what kind of information is seen by the general public. Sure, we can choose to go anywhere for our info. But we don’t. And part of the reason we don’t is that Android favors Google products, and Google search favors Google products. This makes it hard for competitors to get any traction at all. This, in turn, makes its hard for them to make money, because these products are traditionally financed via advertising revenue
.So there’s an argument to be made that Google’s vertical integration is anti-competitive, in the same way that Standard Oil’s was, and Microsoft’s. As of now, there’s the possibility that Google could quash any innovations that might transform the internet, in order to protect their dominance. Just as they took the torch from Microsoft in shaping the internet, a new player could rise. And as big as Google is now, they could prevent this, even if its in the best interest of consumers and the market.
The DOJ’s case against Google could change the internet. In 10 years, we’ll almost certainly still be using search engines, but we could very well be using different ones. If, on the other hand, other search engines are never given a chance to flourish, its going to be Google’s internet.