Why You Should Follow the Google Lawsuit 

The first major antitrust lawsuit against Big Tech in decades

When we launched LibTech Insights, we didn’t envision our future as a legal blog. For years, the US tech industry was too powerful an economic engine for the legal system to take seriously questions about monopolies and regulations. Perhaps it is no surprise then that lawmakers and courts have become interested in these issues now that the tech sector has fallen on hard times. While we have covered lawsuits against Internet Archive and OpenAI in recent weeks, we have another—and far bigger—lawsuit in the news, one that may have profound effects on the future of information retrieval: US v. Google.  

This is definitely a case librarians need to watch. 

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What is this lawsuit about? 

It’s worth noting off the bat that Google is facing two potential antitrust lawsuits from the US Department of Justice. One focuses on Google’s alleged monopoly on search engines, and the other takes issue with its alleged monopoly on advertising technology. Both have the potential to reshape how people use the internet. However, the lawsuit currently underway pertains to Google’s function as a search engine.  

What is the argument? 

The US Department of Justice alleges that deals Google has made with phone companies and web browsers to set Google as the “default” search engine have stifled competition from other search engines, e.g., Bing and DuckDuckGo. Google pays companies such as Apple and Mozilla (Firefox) for this default privilege, and users must manually go through their settings to change to a different default engine. According to the Justice Department, these default agreements “gatekeep” the competition and shore up Google’s ability to act as a monopoly in the search engine market. Profits earned by capturing users through defaults can, in turn, be reinvested back into the business to maintain its stronghold in the market. 

In a comment to Platformer, Kent Walker, who oversees Google’s legal defenses, makes his counterargument succinctly, “Defaults matter, but they’re not determinative.” Google may hold 90 percent of the market share in search engines, but it is also a charismatic mega-brand whose very name has become the verb many use to mean “search online for.” Other commentators allege that companies such as TikTok, Yelp, and ChatGPT—though not typically what one thinks of as a “search engine”—present considerable threats to Google in the market. (To wit, The New York Times ran a piece about TikTok supplanting Google as a search engine among Gen Z.) 

What is happening now? 

Though filed back in 2020, the trial begins this week in the US District Court. It will likely take several months to resolve, and if Google is found guilty, another trial for damages will ensue. 

Why does this matter? 

The New York Times makes the astute point that the significance of this trial may ultimately have less to do with Google specifically than it does with “Big Tech” in general. As I said at the outset of this post, Big Tech companies have mainly evaded antitrust lawsuits, despite many critics over the years alleging that online mega-corporations such as Google, Amazon, and Facebook act as monopolies. If this trial shows that Google is vulnerable to antitrust legislation, then other companies, once seen as impervious, may come under fire. 

My own hunch—if you’ll forgive the editorializing—is that the ad tech lawsuit, if filed, may prove to be the more significant suit. Ads are the commercial infrastructure of the entire internet and, for better or worse, what keep it “free” to use and access. A major upset in the ad market might have far bigger consequences for everyday users of the internet. 

My nattering aside, for librarians and others in the information tech sector, a Google loss in the current trial could reshape the information landscape. The particular ways it would do so won’t be clear until a judge settles on the damages, but considering the nearly universal use of Google, even small changes will have widespread effects. This trial should, at the very least, serve as a clarion call for the further development of algorithmic literacy programs. A single algorithm has become the default way that people find information. This comes with big risks and necessary vigilance.

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