After years of demands for Big Tech to be held to account, Google is facing down an antitrust case that could strike at the core of its business. The Department of Justice\u2019s (DOJ) case takes aim at Google\u2019s dominance in the search market, charging that the platform uses anti-competitive practices to cement its power and squeeze out competitors.\n\n\n\nThe relatively narrow focus of the case \u2013 the tech giant's advertising business is not under scrutiny, for example \u2013 has led some to suggest that even if the lawsuit is successful, it might not be consequential. But there are reasons the case could have more impact than it appears.\n\n\u201cI think it's a substantial case,\u201d says antitrust scholar at Penn State University, John Lopatka. \u201cThis is a major case against a major tech platform; it addresses the core business that Google engages in, so I wouldn't minimise it.\u201d\n\nGoogle helps shore up its position as the world\u2019s dominant search engine by paying Apple, Android phone makers, and browsers such as Mozilla to feature its search engine as the default. The DOJ alleges that, in so doing, Google uses its monopoly to outbid other search competitors on being the default search engine.\n\nGary Reback, a US antitrust lawyer who brought the landmark Microsoft antitrust case and has defended companies against Google in Washington, says that despite its narrow focus, the potential implications of the case should not be underestimated. \u201cI think that there is an intentional effort on the part of Google proponents to try to minimise the scope of the case,\u201d he says.\n\nAlthough the lawsuit primarily targets Google\u2019s position in the search market, Reback says that the case hints at a broader scope. Included in a list of Google\u2019s alleged anticompetitive behaviour, for example, is the claim that the company manipulates search results. It also alleges that Google\u2019s behaviour has harmed consumers by reducing the quality of general search services on dimensions such as \u201cprivacy, data protection, and use of consumer data\u201d, as well as impeding innovation.\n\nAlthough in search, Google\u2019s closest competitor is Microsoft\u2019s Bing, smaller upstarts like DuckDuckGo and Neevo are competing to gain a foothold in the market. The DOJ\u2019s lawsuit alleges that Google creates entry-barriers that prevent nascent start-ups from doing so. (DuckDuckGo has previously provided testimony to the DOJ on this issue.)\n\n\nRead more\n\n \tSpain becomes latest European country to introduce Digital Services Tax\n\nThe potential remedies (actions that could be taken if the DOJ wins) proposed in the suit also hint at the lawsuit's wider ambition, Reback believes. These include \u201cstructural relief\u201d, indicating the possibility of an overhaul to Google\u2019s business.\n\n\u201cWhat the government has done is that they have drawn out a complaint that is narrow in the sense that they don't have to prove all kinds of allegations... and then they've given themselves the flexibility to go much broader in the remedies phase,\u201d says Reback. \u201cIn other words, how we're going to fix this.\u201d\n\nReback believes it should be fairly straightforward for the DOJ to prove the allegations it has made against Google, and that it will be the second part of the case, the remedies, that will be the most interesting. (For its part, Google has called the lawsuit \u201cdeeply flawed\u201d.)\n\nLopatka, however, thinks that the DOJ will have a fight on their hands. Historically, high prices have been the conventional indicator that a company is abusing monopoly power. \u201cThe problem the DOJ has is that Google doesn't charge consumers for use of its search engine,\u201d he says. \u201cIf you're not charging for the product, then you have to find other dimensions on which consumers are injured by that alleged monopoly.\u201d\n\nThe DOJ will charge that Google is injuring consumers on the dimension of quality, particularly privacy. Lopatka says pinning the case on this is problematic. \u201cIt's problematic because they're going to have to prove that consumers value privacy so much, that they're being injured by this alleged monopoly.\u201d\n\nAnother issue is that the DOJ is arguing Google\u2019s market dominance stems from anti-competitive practices, rather than simply a reflection of how this particular market functions.\n\nGoogle\u2019s business model is a two-sided market. As a result of platform economics, \u201cthe more people on one side of the market use that product, the more valuable it is to users on the other side of the market\u201d, says Lopatka. In Google\u2019s case, the more search engine users, the more valuable the search engine is to advertisers.\n\nThis fact is instrumental to the case, because the government will have to \u201cprove that the monopoly power is causally linked to that exclusionary conduct\u201d, says Lopatka. If Google can argue that indirect network effects and feedback effects are just the nature of this market, \u201cit doesn't really have much to do with these exclusionary agreements that the government claims".\n\n\u201cIf Google establishes that even if [they] didn't have these agreements, [they] would still have a dominant share of the market,\u201d says Loptka, \u201cthat contradicts the government's case.\u201d\n\nAt present, Lopatka says that the DOJ\u2019s approach of breaking up Google\u2019s different markets doesn\u2019t recognise the fact that these markets are all interconnected.\n\n\u201cIn that respect, I think that this case against Google is significant, because it will be another effort to analyse antitrust law in one of these two-sided platform markets,\u201d he says.\nThe return of antitrust\nExperts have noted parallels between this case and an antitrust case the DOJ brought against Microsoft, which accused it of using anti-competitive practices to cement the market dominance in the PC. Initially billed to threaten the break-up of Microsoft\u2019s business, the case was settled in 2001. Since this underwhelming outcome, no further antitrust attempts on Big Tech have been made in the US until now.\n\nIn 2018, the EU found that Google was illegally using its Android system to privilege Chrome and Google search. It ruled that the company should hold auctions to decide which search engines are selected instead. But rather than solving the issue, rivals say this intervention has actually bolstered Google\u2019s profits.\n\nReback thinks that the US government will have learned its lesson from previous antitrust failures. \u201cIf they do a case, and they bring charges, and they have a trial and so forth, and all they end up doing is voiding these contracts, I think people will laugh at them,\u201d he says. \u201cIn the same way the people kind of snicker about all the fanfare in the EU that produced no results.\u201d\n\n\u201cGoogle is so big by this time, and there's so little competition, that it doesn't even need the contracts to maintain its dominant market position,\u201d says Reback.\n\nHowever, he says given the case is set to span years, Google and other tech companies might have exerted sufficient influence over politicians in Washington to minimise any potential impact. \u201cThere are ways to fall off the railroad tracks here.\u201d\n\n\nRead more\n\n \tGoogle Health\u2019s cancer-detecting algorithm prompts AI transparency debate\n\nBut beyond immediate consequences for Google\u2019s business, the case already appears to be having repercussions. The lawsuit notes that at present, Google pays Apple $8\u201312bn (15% to 20% of Apple\u2019s profit) every year for the latter to pre-load Google\u2019s search engine on Mac and iOS.\n\nIn light of the antitrust case, the Financial Times reported this week that Apple is redoubling efforts to develop its own search engine that could replace Google on its products. Apple already offers DuckDuckGo as an alternative to Google in its Safari browser, and the Wall Street Journal reported speculation that the firm could integrate this into its browser in place of Google, given both companies\u2019 emphasis on privacy.\nBreaking up Google?\nWhat happens if the DOJ\u2019s case is successful? Experts have said that one of the most extreme outcomes could be compelling Google to break off its Android operations. Although technology analyst Benedict Evans has poured cold water on this idea, writing in his newsletter: \u201cThe DOJ's case is too narrow really to support that, but if you did, again, how would it be funded, given today it's open-source and free to the [original equipment manufacturers]?\u201d\n\nBut perhaps the biggest result of the case will be promoting the antitrust agenda and making an eventual break-up of Big Tech more likely. Lopatka points out that if the government loses the case, it will probably stimulate interest in changes to the laws that currently govern tech giants.\n\n"On the other hand, those eager for legislative reform are unlikely to be appeased even in the event that this case is successful," he says.\n\nThe case has attracted a rare bipartisan consensus with David Cicilline, the Democratic chair of the House of Representatives antitrust subcommittee, calling the action \u201clong overdue", and Josh Hawley, a Republican senator, saying it was \u201cthe most important antitrust case in a generation\u201d.\n\nThe Federal Trade Commission and several Federal investigations into Google, Amazon, Apple and Facebook are underway too. Whether this antitrust case is successful or not, significant changes to how Big Tech is regulated seem inevitable.