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The motivations and merits of DOJ’s lawsuit against Google

The Justice Department is suing Google for allegedly leveraging its market power to block competition illegally. In the most significant challenge to a big tech company in decades, prosecutors say Google pays phone manufacturers to make its search engine users' default, among other charges. Amna Nawaz talks to Dipayan Ghosh of the Harvard Kennedy School’s Digital Platforms & Democracy Project.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    The antitrust suit brought against Google by the U.S. Justice Department today marks the most significant challenge to a big tech company in this country in decades. The federal government says that the tech giant is abusing its power to block competition.

    Amna Nawaz fills in the details and looks at the prospects ahead.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    That's right, Judy.

    The Justice Department alleges that Google uses its enormous advertising profits to pay phone manufacturers to make sure that Google is the default search engine on your phone. This pattern, prosecutors say, has helped Google capture almost 90 percent of the search engine market in the U.S.

    Now 11 state attorneys general, all Republican, joined the federal lawsuit. But Google, which has a market value of more than $1 trillion, says it is not using anti-competitive practices.

    To unpack all of this, I'm joined by Dipayan Ghosh. He heads the Digital Platforms and Democracy Project at the Harvard Kennedy School. He also worked at Facebook, leading their efforts to address privacy and security issues there.

    Dipayan Ghosh, welcome back to the "NewsHour."

    Let's talk about what the Justice Department is alleging. They say Google is so dominant, it abuses the dominance and it's stifling competition. Here's a line from the lawsuit. They say: "In sum, Google deprives rivals of the quality, reach and financial position necessary to mount any meaningful competition to Google's longstanding monopolies. By foreclosing competition from rivals," they say, "Google is harming consumers and advertisers."

    Dipayan, how strong an argument is that when it comes to an antitrust case?

  • Dipayan Ghosh:

    I think it's really difficult to say right now, but I think the Justice Department does have a case here, as do many other regulators around the world.

    It's not a bad thing to have a monopoly. It is a bad thing, though, to use illegal means to gain that monopoly status and get into that market position or to maintain your position as a monopoly using illegal means.

    And those illegal means are anti-competitive measures. Anti-competitive measures in this case and other cases could mean kind of shutting off the opportunity for would-be rivals to compete with you.

    And I think that the Justice Department does have a case here in suggesting that Google has shut off that opportunity, that channel for competition for would-be rivals by engaging in these commercial agreements with phone manufacturers, with telecommunications firms, to make sure that Google is the preferred search engine through all these channels.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Well, let me ask you what about Google says in response, because they argue: Our services are free. We don't force people to use them. We don't stop them from using other services.

    They issued a statement in response and said: "This lawsuit would do nothing to help consumers. To the contrary, it would artificially prop up lower-quality search alternatives, raise phone prices, make it harder for people to get the search services that they want to use," in response to that lawsuit.

    Dipayan, what do you make of that defense from Google?

  • Dipayan Ghosh:

    Well, from Google's perspective, this is a totally expected line of argument, that, hey, we're Google. We have the most innovative engineers. We were the first major search engine on the market, in the sense that we are the — we became most popular through our innovation.

    We developed the page-ranked algorithm. We hired all these tremendous computer scientists to develop our product. And this has happened over a course of the past two decades, not just over the past five years, in the maintenance of this monopoly, as the Justice Department has suggested.

    And, to that point, Google might try to point to the fact that it doesn't actually charge its consumers any monetary price. And yet I think what the Justice Department would say to that, and rightly so, is that, well, you do charge a price. It just doesn't come in the form of money. It comes in the form of people's data and attention.

    And when you have a monopoly and you collect so much of that data and attention at an exploitative, potentially exploitative rate, it actually affects the rest of society culturally, politically and economically.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Well, Dipayan, let me ask you about the timing, because there's some questions around this.

    A quick scroll through President Trump's Twitter feed shows he's long had Google in its sights. There was some reporting that this was really pushed through before some prosecutors wanted to move forward with it.

    And there's a number of attorneys general who decided not to join the lawsuit. Is there any concern here that there is political motivation behind this lawsuit?

  • Dipayan Ghosh:

    I think we have to acknowledge that that possibility exists.

    As you just mentioned, Amna, the timing of this is highly suspect. We're two weeks away from the biggest election in the country, of course, in the world. We are just moments from hearing about hearing about what's going to happen in our national political discourse.

    And Donald Trump and the Justice Department may well really wish to be able to point to their — to the possibility of their holding tech's feet to the fire, particularly given Trump himself has implied that big tech has engaged in anti-competitive — anti-conservative bias and suppression of conservative voices.

    And especially, as you mentioned, given the states and the political — the politicians in those states that are kind of joining the Justice Department in pushing this, it does seem quite politically motivated along these themes of anti-conservative bias.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    A lot of questions around that, and, of course, not the first time that big tech has come under scrutiny.

    That is Dipayan Ghosh from Harvard's Kennedy School joining us tonight.

    Thanks so much for your time.

  • Dipayan Ghosh:

    Thank you, Amna.

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