From our correspondent in Washington
The Department of Justice, as anticipated for months, Formally accuses Google of abuse of a dominant position in federal court in Washington. Civil proceedings can take months. If federal prosecutors win, the digital giant could be forced to change its business model.
Several US states could join the process. However, some under Democratic administration are reluctant. But after the elections these partisan blockades could be lifted. It will, in fact, be up to the next President of the United States, whether it be Donald Trump or Joe Biden, to name the people within the Department of Justice who will present their case against them in the coming months. Google.
The case is the most important litigation by the federal state antitrust service against a powerful high-tech company since the one against Microsoft in 1998. The event is not lacking in irony because it is precisely thanks to the changes imposed on Microsoft from 2001 that Google was able to grow.
At the time, the American authorities intervened to force Microsoft to let Internet users choose the Internet browser on their computer and without systematically requiring their Explorer browser. By forcing Microsoft to let Google enter PCs, American justice has opened the door to new applications that have changed the world.
Today, Google is criticized for exactly the same thing, but this time on smartphones: wanting to block innovation and competition by excluding potential rivals. The Mountain View (California) firm is accused of maintaining its dominance over more than 80% of information search on the mobile internet, effectively forcing buyers of smartphones to use its Android software and the Google search engine. Even for iPhone users, a product sold by Apple that does not use Android, Google maintains its dominance by paying Apple for the engine incorporated into Safari.
The teams of William Barr, the US Secretary of Justice, have been working for more than a year to accumulate evidence demonstrating the arrangements by which Google de facto excludes the applications of potential competitors in the search field. Besides smartphone makers, carriers are also paid by Google to ensure that the giant remains the default provider of essential features like email messages.
From this domination, Google has built an extraordinary ecosystem in which it controls the tools that also allow advertisers to get their messages across. Google, whose main revenues are derived from internet advertising, is accused of using its dominant position to unfairly influence the prices of advertising and reduce the choices offered to consumers.
These latter points are essential in US competition law. The “antitrust” services do not have the mission to control a company which becomes too rich or too powerful. Their role is not to rescue the unfortunate competitors of the leaders of an industry. They must, however, ensure that a company respects the laws of fair competition, does not block innovation to preserve its rents, does not drive up prices and does not ultimately reduce consumer choices.
The fact that Google’s services are innovative and free for consumers is a key argument in the defense of the Californian giant. Its Android operating system is widely offered to smartphone manufacturers which has clearly served competition and innovation. In exchange, however, Google obtains advantageous conditions which perpetuate its domination. Sitting on 120 billion dollars of cash, Google has the means to defend itself in a long procedure and to appeal any unfavorable judgments. At this stage of the proceedings, prosecutors do not offer specific remedies for the abuses they expose. It is in a possible second phase of the civil trial that the question of structural changes to be made to the Google model will be debated.
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