Politics

The DOJ went narrow on Google. That may be good news for the rest of Big Tech.

The antitrust complaint focuses on facts specific to the search giant. But there are warning signs for Facebook, Amazon and Apple, too.

The DOJ went narrow on Google. That may be good news for the rest of Big Tech.

Despite all the bluster, the DOJ's legal argument is narrow and fact-based, focused not on Google's size but primarily on the contracts it has with other companies.

Photo: Alex Tai/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images

In the opening paragraphs of Tuesday's antitrust complaint, the Justice Department suggests that the problem with Google is … pretty much everything. The "scrappy startup" has become not just "a monopoly gatekeeper for the internet," but an "empire" that's too big, too rich and too much in control of everything related to search.

But that's not what the DOJ is suing over. Despite all the bluster — "Google is so dominant that 'Google' is not only a noun to identify the company and the Google search engine but also a verb that means to search the internet" — the DOJ's legal argument is narrow and fact-based, focused not on Google's size but primarily on the contracts it has with other companies.

That should be a relief to the other big tech companies. Instead of making legal arguments that could apply with equal force to any of them, the DOJ's case takes aim at a set of facts that are unique to Google.

"It's factual and narrow, and that may limit its scope," said Gary Reback, a veteran Silicon Valley lawyer who has been credited with getting the government to bring a case against Microsoft in the 1990s.

Before the Google case landed, industry watchers had speculated that the case would include some discussion of self-preferencing, or the allegation that Google prioritizes its own products in search results. But the DOJ didn't go there, instead homing in on Google's agreements that require mobile phone manufacturers like Apple to keep Google as their default search engine.

A discussion of "self-preferencing" might have left Amazon vulnerable, as critics have long accused Amazon of prioritizing its own private-label products. And a broader indictment of Google's practice of buying market dominance could also spell trouble for Facebook, which deals with its competitors in a similarly spendy way. Facebook could have come off even worse, given the email evidence that Mark Zuckerberg wanted to buy up competitors to kill competition.

And — big talk at the beginning notwithstanding — the complaint specifically avoids concluding that the sheer size and success of Google is a cause for legal concern. That might be too much for pro-business Republicans to swallow.

The big tech companies are certainly not out of the woods. One worry: the way the DOJ defines the relevant market.

Google has argued that it's got plenty of competition because Expedia offers search results in travel and Amazon offers search results in retail. Similarly, Amazon has argued that it's in competition with every brick-and-mortar store in the world, and Apple has resisted the argument that its App Store is a market unto itself.

With Google, the DOJ has taken a much narrower view of the relevant market, defining it as "general search"; think less Amazon and Expedia, more DuckDuckGo. Similarly narrow definitions could spell trouble for the other big tech firms.

"This confirms what [the tech companies] suspected, which is that government agencies are not going to accept their universe-and-all-it-contains market definitions," said former FTC Chairman William Kovacic.

There's one other big worry for Google's big tech brethren: the line where the DOJ says, "When a consumer uses Google, the consumer provides personal information and attention in exchange for search results. Google then monetizes the consumer's information and attention by selling ads."

For years, some experts have argued that digital platforms can't violate antitrust laws because they offer their services for free. The DOJ has now taken the view that companies like Google and Facebook don't really offer their services for free because they monetize users data with ads.

"This confirms that the government is looking at these issues not in the way the tech companies would like," Kovacic said.

Policy

Musk’s texts reveal what tech’s most powerful people really want

From Jack Dorsey to Joe Rogan, Musk’s texts are chock-full of überpowerful people, bending a knee to Twitter’s once and (still maybe?) future king.

“Maybe Oprah would be interested in joining the Twitter board if my bid succeeds,” one text reads.

Photo illustration: Patrick Pleul/picture alliance via Getty Images; Protocol

Elon Musk’s text inbox is a rarefied space. It’s a place where tech’s wealthiest casually commit to spending billions of dollars with little more than a thumbs-up emoji and trade tips on how to rewrite the rules for how hundreds of millions of people around the world communicate.

Now, Musk’s ongoing legal battle with Twitter is giving the rest of us a fleeting glimpse into that world. The collection of Musk’s private texts that was made public this week is chock-full of tech power brokers. While the messages are meant to reveal something about Musk’s motivations — and they do — they also say a lot about how things get done and deals get made among some of the most powerful people in the world.

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Issie Lapowsky

Issie Lapowsky ( @issielapowsky) is Protocol's chief correspondent, covering the intersection of technology, politics, and national affairs. She also oversees Protocol's fellowship program. Previously, she was a senior writer at Wired, where she covered the 2016 election and the Facebook beat in its aftermath. Prior to that, Issie worked as a staff writer for Inc. magazine, writing about small business and entrepreneurship. She has also worked as an on-air contributor for CBS News and taught a graduate-level course at New York University's Center for Publishing on how tech giants have affected publishing.

Sponsored Content

Great products are built on strong patents

Experts say robust intellectual property protection is essential to ensure the long-term R&D required to innovate and maintain America's technology leadership.

Every great tech product that you rely on each day, from the smartphone in your pocket to your music streaming service and navigational system in the car, shares one important thing: part of its innovative design is protected by intellectual property (IP) laws.

From 5G to artificial intelligence, IP protection offers a powerful incentive for researchers to create ground-breaking products, and governmental leaders say its protection is an essential part of maintaining US technology leadership. To quote Secretary of Commerce Gina Raimondo: "intellectual property protection is vital for American innovation and entrepreneurship.”

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James Daly
James Daly has a deep knowledge of creating brand voice identity, including understanding various audiences and targeting messaging accordingly. He enjoys commissioning, editing, writing, and business development, particularly in launching new ventures and building passionate audiences. Daly has led teams large and small to multiple awards and quantifiable success through a strategy built on teamwork, passion, fact-checking, intelligence, analytics, and audience growth while meeting budget goals and production deadlines in fast-paced environments. Daly is the Editorial Director of 2030 Media and a contributor at Wired.
Fintech

Circle’s CEO: This is not the time to ‘go crazy’

Jeremy Allaire is leading the stablecoin powerhouse in a time of heightened regulation.

“It’s a complex environment. So every CEO and every board has to be a little bit cautious, because there’s a lot of uncertainty,” Circle CEO Jeremy Allaire told Protocol at Converge22.

Photo: Circle

Sitting solo on a San Francisco stage, Circle CEO Jeremy Allaire asked tennis superstar Serena Williams what it’s like to face “unrelenting skepticism.”

“What do you do when someone says you can’t do this?” Allaire asked the athlete turned VC, who was beaming into Circle’s Converge22 convention by video.

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Benjamin Pimentel

Benjamin Pimentel ( @benpimentel) covers crypto and fintech from San Francisco. He has reported on many of the biggest tech stories over the past 20 years for the San Francisco Chronicle, Dow Jones MarketWatch and Business Insider, from the dot-com crash, the rise of cloud computing, social networking and AI to the impact of the Great Recession and the COVID crisis on Silicon Valley and beyond. He can be reached at bpimentel@protocol.com or via Google Voice at (925) 307-9342.

Enterprise

Is Salesforce still a growth company? Investors are skeptical

Salesforce is betting that customer data platform Genie and new Slack features can push the company to $50 billion in revenue by 2026. But investors are skeptical about the company’s ability to deliver.

Photo: Marlena Sloss/Bloomberg via Getty Images

Salesforce has long been enterprise tech’s golden child. The company said everything customers wanted to hear and did everything investors wanted to see: It produced robust, consistent growth from groundbreaking products combined with an aggressive M&A strategy and a cherished culture, all operating under the helm of a bombastic, but respected, CEO and team of well-coiffed executives.

Dreamforce is the embodiment of that success. Every year, alongside frustrating San Francisco residents, the over-the-top celebration serves as a battle cry to the enterprise software industry, reminding everyone that Marc Benioff’s mighty fiefdom is poised to expand even deeper into your corporate IT stack.

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Joe Williams

Joe Williams is a writer-at-large at Protocol. He previously covered enterprise software for Protocol, Bloomberg and Business Insider. Joe can be reached at JoeWilliams@Protocol.com. To share information confidentially, he can also be contacted on a non-work device via Signal (+1-309-265-6120) or JPW53189@protonmail.com.

Policy

The US and EU are splitting on tech policy. That’s putting the web at risk.

A conversation with Cédric O, the former French minister of state for digital.

“With the difficulty of the U.S. in finding political agreement or political basis to legislate more, we are facing a risk of decoupling in the long term between the EU and the U.S.”

Photo: David Paul Morris/Bloomberg via Getty Images

Cédric O, France’s former minister of state for digital, has been an advocate of Europe’s approach to tech and at the forefront of the continent’s relations with U.S. giants. Protocol caught up with O last week at a conference in New York focusing on social media’s negative effects on society and the possibilities of blockchain-based protocols for alternative networks.

O said watching the U.S. lag in tech policy — even as some states pass their own measures and federal bills gain momentum — has made him worry about the EU and U.S. decoupling. While not as drastic as a disentangling of economic fortunes between the West and China, such a divergence, as O describes it, could still make it functionally impossible for companies to serve users on both sides of the Atlantic with the same product.

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Ben Brody

Ben Brody (@ BenBrodyDC) is a senior reporter at Protocol focusing on how Congress, courts and agencies affect the online world we live in. He formerly covered tech policy and lobbying (including antitrust, Section 230 and privacy) at Bloomberg News, where he previously reported on the influence industry, government ethics and the 2016 presidential election. Before that, Ben covered business news at CNNMoney and AdAge, and all manner of stories in and around New York. He still loves appearing on the New York news radio he grew up with.

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