Search king too big to ig­nore

San Francisco Chronicle - Late Edition (Sunday) - - IN­SIGHT - LET­TERS TO THE ED­I­TOR

Though vague on so­lu­tions, fed­eral an­titrust lawyers are clear about one thing: Google is too big a mo­nop­oly to ig­nore any longer. The tech colos­sus is so dom­i­nant in so many ways that it needs heavy duty reg­u­la­tion to pro­tect con­sumers.

Just as blunt is the search king’s re­sponse. Its com­peti­tors, how­ever dinky, are just a fin­ger tap away, the com­pany says. ExCEO Eric Sch­midt adds: “There’s a dif­fer­ence between dom­i­nance and ex­cel­lence.”

Let the fight­ing be­gin in this era’s mon­ster tech and reg­u­la­tory bat­tle. The dis­pute is ex­pected to run for years, pow­ered by Google par­ent Al­pha­bet’s deep pock­ets and the drawn out nature of an­titrust lit­i­ga­tion.

The charges an­nounced last week rep­re­sent some­thing else: an em­phatic end to both Wash­ing­ton’s and the public’s love af­fair with the brash over­lords of the in­ter­net, which has mor­phed far beyond its early days.

Spawned in Penin­sula apart­ment by two Stan­ford grad stu­dents, Google is now val­ued at over $ 1 tril­lion. That daz­zling suc­cess has now be­come a li­a­bil­ity as trust­bust­ing at­tor­neys take aim at its over­whelm­ing scale and promi­nence.

It’s hard to un­der­state the sig­nif­i­cance of the move by the Depart­ment of Jus­tice. Once a gen­er­a­tion, it seems, the fed­eral machinery goes af­ter a ma­jor tar­get, dat­ing to Stan­dard Oil more than a cen­tury ago to Mi­crosoft two decades back. The re­sults can pro­duce ma­jor changes to foster com­pe­ti­tion in key in­dus­tries.

Just as no­table is the hal­lelu­jah cho­rus greet­ing the Google charges.

Lib­eral Democrats and pop­ulist Repub­li­cans are salut­ing the le­gal ac­tion. Not to be out­done, two groups of state at­tor­neys gen­eral are lev­el­ing sim­i­lar charges at the com­pany with their own suit For now, Cal­i­for­nia At­tor­ney Gen­eral Xavier Be­cerra isn’t tak­ing part in the on­slaught at his home state firm.

Any­one with a lap­top or smart­phone has a stake in this dis­pute. What was once a nim­ble and use­ful way to search the web has turned into an em­pire that ropes in ad­ver­tis­ing, video stream­ing, ex­tended business ties and hard­ware rang­ing from hand­sets to ther­mostats. Google mines user habits to curry fa­vor with ad­ver­tis­ers. Its An­droid sys­tem is the most used op­er­at­ing soft­ware on smart­phones.

A ma­jor­ity of Amer­i­cans along with the rest of the world spend hours ev­ery day on Google high­ways and plat­forms. “Look it up” once meant go­ing to the dic­tionary. Now it’s punch­ing up Google. There’s an­other hu­man fac­tor con­tained in the charges. Con­sumers may be dis­ad­van­taged, but they may not know it. Google search re­mains free to a ca­sual user even if the com­pany taps that ac­tion for other uses.

Google lawyers are ridi­cul­ing the charges as “deeply flawed.” No one is be­ing forced into the com­pany’s arms and al­ter­na­tives ex­ist. The firm’s great crime is to be good at what it is, de­fend­ers ar­gue. Yes, it pays to in­clude its ser­vices on phone screens such as Ap­ple’s, but that’s not much dif­fer­ent than a ce­real maker rent­ing out eye level space on a su­per­mar­ket shelf. Any­one can do it and op­tions ex­ist, goes the ar­gu­ment.

But fed­eral of­fi­cials have a pow­er­ful come­back. None of Google’s ri­vals has much of a mar­ket. Does any­one re­ally use Bing? TikTok is the fla­vor of the day, but it’s noth­ing close to YouTube, an­other arm of the Google­dom­i­nated Al­pha­bet em­pire.

With so much at stake, this an­titrust bat­tle will prob­a­bly last years. That could take the fight well past the Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion that is bring­ing the present charges. In fact, the wide­spread doubts about Big Tech’s su­per firms in­clud­ing Face­book, Ap­ple and Ama­zon led a bi­par­ti­san con­gres­sional panel last month to call for a crack­down sim­i­lar in tone to this one. A fu­ri­ous elec­tion sea­son is pro­duc­ing sharp ini­tia­tives di­rected at on­ce­fa­vored firms.

So­lu­tions aren’t on the ta­ble yet. In fil­ing the charges, the Jus­tice Depart­ment stuck with a de­pic­tion of Google’s size and power to limit com­pe­ti­tion. It didn’t spell out any an­swers. But al­ready there are pre­dicted so­lu­tions such as spin­ning off YouTube or sev­er­ing fi­nan­cial links with the likes of Ap­ple. Those steps will come only if the le­gal chal­lenge pre­vails.

Google has be­come a vi­tal tool, ready source of en­ter­tain­ment and ed­u­ca­tional and cul­tural main­stay. It’s also a near ad­dic­tion, pen­e­trat­ing ev­ery cor­ner of con­sumer, business and govern­men­tal life. Its next chal­lenge will be jus­ti­fy­ing that suc­cess. Wash­ing­ton is right to ques­tion a near mo­nop­oly that’s col­lected such broad power.

Paul Kuroda / Spe­cial to The Chron­i­cle

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