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Politics

The DOJ sues Google for monopoly practices — and says there’s more to come

Google's response: 'People use Google because they choose to – not because they're forced to or because they can't find alternatives.'

A Google office in London

The DOJ's case revolves around some of Google's antitrust weak spots, including the exclusive, billion-dollar agreements that require mobile-phone manufacturers to keep Google as their default search engine.

Photo: Future Publishing/Getty Images

The Department of Justice sued Google for antitrust violations on Tuesday, setting off what is likely to be a yearslong battle that will indelibly shape the future of the tech industry.

The case, which was filed in federal court in Washington, marks the most aggressive action by the U.S. government against a tech company in decades. The DOJ accuses Google of leveraging its dominant position in search and search-advertising to elbow out rivals and disadvantage competitors.

The case revolves around some of Google's antitrust weak spots: the exclusive, billion-dollar agreements that require mobile-phone manufacturers to keep Google as their default search engine, as well as Google's decision to preload Google search on Android phones. The European Union fined Google $5.1 billion over similar allegations two years ago.

"Two decades ago, Google became the darling of Silicon Valley as a scrappy startup with an innovative way to search the emerging internet," the DOJ wrote in the complaint. "That Google is long gone."

"For many years, Google has used anticompetitive tactics to maintain and extend its monopolies in the markets for general search services, search advertising, and general search text advertising — the cornerstones of its empire," the DOJ added.

During a call with reporters Tuesday morning, DOJ officials emphasized that this is only the beginning of a long effort to take on Google.

"We're asking the court to break Google's grip on search distribution so competition and innovation can take hold, and consumers and advertisers will no longer be beholden to an unchecked monopolist," said Ryan Shores, the DOJ's senior adviser for technology industries.

In a statement, Google called the lawsuit "deeply flawed." A Google spokesperson added: "People use Google because they choose to – not because they're forced to or because they can't find alternatives."

The case was filed by the DOJ along with the Republican attorneys general from Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Indiana, Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi, Missouri, Montana, South Carolina and Texas. Other states currently investigating Google, including those led by Democrats, are likely to file their own separate cases in the upcoming months.

The case could mean serious structural changes for Google, including a breakup. There's no discussion of potential remedies in the case filed Tuesday, as those discussions usually happen further down the line. But the battle is only beginning, and it will last well past the Nov. 3 election.

Antitrust experts are predicting that a potential Biden administration would carry the case forward, considering the bipartisan energy around taking on the enormous power of the largest tech companies.

"I would definitely anticipate the Biden Justice Department carrying this forward," said John Newman, an associate professor of law at the University of Miami and former DOJ antitrust lawyer. "There seems to be a growing consensus in Democratic party circles that Biden needs to be stronger on antitrust than Obama was."

Newman said a Biden administration could even widen the scope of the antitrust complaint and potential remedies.

Over the last century, antitrust cases against dominant tech firms have triggered huge shifts in the tech industry's trajectory. The antitrust case against IBM in 1975 gave Microsoft room to flourish; the 1984 AT&T antitrust case opened new opportunities in the cellular market; and the 1990s case against Microsoft has been credited with enabling the rise of Google and Facebook.

In those cases, it didn't matter whether the U.S. government won its case or not. The act of suing a dominant tech firm changed how the company did business and created room for smaller companies to blossom.

"Historians will hopefully look at today as the beginning of the end of the surveillance economy," said Gabriel Weinberg, the CEO and founder of Google rival DuckDuckGo.

The DOJ's case against Google is certain to be marred by allegations of political bias. Attorney General William Barr was unusually involved in the Google investigation from the beginning, and he reportedly pushed to file the suit before the election over objections from Justice Department staff.

Twitter’s future is newsletters and podcasts, not tweets

With Revue and a slew of other new products, Twitter is trying hard to move past texting.

We started with 140 characters. What now?

Image: Liv Iko/Protocol

Twitter was once a home for 140-character missives about your lunch. Now, it's something like the real-time nerve center of the internet. But as for what Twitter wants to be going forward? It's slightly more complicated.

In just the last few months, Twitter has rolled out Fleets, a Stories-like feature; started testing an audio-only experience called Spaces; and acquired the podcast app Breaker and the video chat app Squad. And on Tuesday, Twitter announced it was acquiring Revue, a newsletter platform. The whole 140-characters thing (which is now 280 characters, by the way) is certainly not Twitter's organizing principle anymore. So what is?

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David Pierce

David Pierce ( @pierce) is Protocol's editor at large. Prior to joining Protocol, he was a columnist at The Wall Street Journal, a senior writer with Wired, and deputy editor at The Verge. He owns all the phones.

Microsoft wants to replace artists with AI

Better Zoom calls, simpler email attachments, smart iPhone cases and other patents from Big Tech.

Turning your stories into images.

Image: USPTO/Microsoft

Hello and welcome to 2021! The Big Tech patent roundup is back, after a short vacation and … all the things … that happened between the start of the year and now. It seems the tradition of tech companies filing weird and wonderful patents has carried into the new year; there are some real gems from the last few weeks. Microsoft is trying to outsource all creative endeavors to AI; Apple wants to make seat belts less annoying; and Amazon wants to cut down on some of the recyclable waste that its own success has inevitably created.

And remember: The big tech companies file all kinds of crazy patents for things, and though most never amount to anything, some end up defining the future.

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Mike Murphy

Mike Murphy ( @mcwm) is the director of special projects at Protocol, focusing on the industries being rapidly upended by technology and the companies disrupting incumbents. Previously, Mike was the technology editor at Quartz, where he frequently wrote on robotics, artificial intelligence, and consumer electronics.

The Capitol riots scrambled FCC Republicans’ Section 230 plans. What now?

The FCC's top tech agitators have been almost silent about Big Tech's Trump bans.

The commissioners will gingerly walk a line of condemning the tech platforms without seeming like they are condoning the rhetoric that led to Trump's suspensions or the takedown of Parler.

Photo: Jonathan Newton-Pool/Getty Images

Brendan Carr, one of the Federal Communications Commission's two Republicans, spent the better part of 2020 blasting Big Tech platforms for allegedly censoring conservative speech, appearing on Fox News and right-wing podcasts to claim that social media companies exhibited bias against President Trump and the GOP more broadly.

But in the weeks since Twitter, Facebook and YouTube suspended former President Trump and removed large swaths of his supporters in the wake of the violent riot on Capitol Hill, Carr has remained largely silent about the deplatforming, except to condemn the violence. "Political violence is completely unacceptable," Carr told reporters days after the riot. "It's clear to me President Trump bears responsibility."

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Emily Birnbaum

Emily Birnbaum ( @birnbaum_e) is a tech policy reporter with Protocol. Her coverage focuses on the U.S. government's attempts to regulate one of the most powerful industries in the world, with a focus on antitrust, privacy and politics. Previously, she worked as a tech policy reporter with The Hill after spending several months as a breaking news reporter. She is a Bethesda, Maryland native and proud Kenyon College alumna.

People

Google's union has big goals — and big roadblocks

Absence of dues, retaliation fears and small numbers could pose problems for the union's dream of collective bargaining, but Googlers are undeterred.

Recruiting union members beyond the early adopters has had its challenges.

Photo: David Paul Morris/Getty Images

When the Alphabet Workers Union launched with more than 200 Googlers at the beginning of the year, it saw a quick flood of new sign-ups, nearly quadrupling membership over a few weeks. But even with the more than 710 members it now represents, the union still stands for just a tiny fraction of Google's more than 200,000 North American employees and contractors. The broader Alphabet workforce could prove difficult to win over, which is a hurdle that could stand in the way of the group's long-term ambitions for substantive culture change and even collective bargaining.

The initial boom of interest from Googlers was thrilling for Alex Peterson, a software engineer and union spokesperson. "It's really reinvigorating what it means to actually be a community of Googlers, which is something that's been eroding over the past four or five years, or even longer."

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Anna Kramer is a reporter at Protocol (@ anna_c_kramer), where she helps write and produce Source Code, Protocol's daily newsletter. Prior to joining the team, she covered tech and small business for the San Francisco Chronicle and privacy for Bloomberg Law. She is a recent graduate of Brown University, where she studied International Relations and Arabic and wrote her senior thesis about surveillance tools and technological development in the Middle East.

Politics

This is the future of the FTC

President Joe Biden has named Becca Slaughter acting chair of the FTC. In conversation with Protocol, she laid out her priorities for the next four years.

FTC commissioner Becca Slaughter may be President Biden's pick for FTC chair.

Photo: David Becker/Getty Images

Becca Slaughter made a name for herself last year when, as a commissioner for the Federal Trade Commission, she breastfed her newborn baby during video testimony before the Senate, raising awareness about the plight of working parents during the pandemic.

But on Thursday, Slaughter's name began circulating for other reasons: She was just named as President Joe Biden's pick for acting chair of the FTC, an appointment that puts Slaughter at the head of antitrust investigations into tech giants, including Facebook.

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Issie Lapowsky
Issie Lapowsky (@issielapowsky) is a senior reporter at Protocol, covering the intersection of technology, politics, and national affairs. 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. Email Issie.
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