Should the government break up Google, as it broke up Standard Oil and AT&T, for being a monopoly too big to tolerate? Let’s consider that question as we take a stroll down memory lane.
ª In March 1998, Fortune Magazine chronicled the rise of a mighty tech giant, an online powerhouse it described as “the biggest star in the Internet cosmos.” The headline on the piece: “How Yahoo! Won The Search Wars.” So popular and wealthy had Yahoo! become, Fortune noted, that “some people say it’s the next American Online.”
ª Nine years later, The Guardian reported on the Internet’s number one social-media platform, the most-visited website in America. “Will MySpace ever lose its monopoly?” it asked, strongly suggesting the answer was no. MySpace’s user base, massive and fast-growing, was “becoming what economists call a ‘natural monopoly,’” said The Guardian. “It may already be too late for competitors to dislodge MySpace.”
ª The following December, Forbes celebrated the undisputed Goliath in mobile communications. On the magazine’s cover was a picture of a confident CEO holding one of his company’s telephones to his ear. The headline was just as cocky: “Nokia. One Billion Customers — Can Anyone Catch The Cell Phone King?”
A chorus of critics has been sounding alarms lately about the monopoly power of Big Tech corporations like Google, demanding that the federal government bring antitrust prosecutions to clip their wings or split them into smaller firms. These latter-day trustbusters claim that Google uses its outsize market power to stifle competitors and suppress innovation, that it jiggers its search algorithms to boost its own products over its rivals’, and that its staggering dominance has rendered it too big to be tamed through the normal resiliency of the market.
But the notion that government intervention is needed to cut Google down to size is utterly misguided.
If there is an immutable lesson to be learned from the history of market economics and corporate power, it is that kings of the hill don’t reign forever. Supposedly invulnerable businesses are challenged by nimble upstarts with disruptive ideas. They lose market share as customers’ tastes change. They fail to adapt because success makes them overcautious.
Just ask the titans from our stroll down memory lane. Yahoo! is now far from “the biggest star in the Internet cosmos.” MySpace long ago lost its social-media monopoly. Nokia’s billion customers migrated to Apple and Android.
Similar fates befell AOL and Blackberry and Palm. Web browser Netscape gave way to Internet Explorer, which gave way in turn to Firefox and Chrome. Hotmail was deposed by Gmail. Now iTunes is being pushed back by Spotify and Amazon Prime.
There are no perpetual market leaders in business. Sooner or later, every Goliath is displaced by a David. Unless history has ended, that goes for Google, too. And it won’t require government intercession to make it happen.
Much is made by the antitrust enthusiasts of Google’s overwhelming supremacy in Internet search. “Google has succeeded where Genghis Khan, communism, and Esperanto all failed: It dominates the globe,” wrote Charles Duhigg in a recent New York Times Magazine essay. In the United States, Google accounts for about 90 percent of search engine activity. Since it has competitors (quite a few, in fact), it isn’t literally a monopoly — it dominates the search market, but doesn’t control it absolutely.
Even using the term colloquially, though, Google is a “monopoly” only in its corner of the Internet playing field: search engine advertising. That is certainly an important corner, but it isn’t the whole digital universe. It isn’t even the whole search universe.
Nine out of 10 people may “Google” when they want to know where Timbuktu is or see pictures of Meghan Markle’s wedding dress. But for the soaring population of online shoppers, Google is no longer the leading search destination. Amazon is. As of December 2016, Amazon was the starting point for 52 percent of product searches, up from 38 percent just two years earlier. A charge frequently levied by the break-up-Google crowd is that the company unfairly boosts its own Google Shopping search results over those of other price-comparison sites. Yet even if that represents an abuse of Google’s economic clout — a highly debatable “if” — it’s an abuse that matters less and less as Google gets squeezed out of shopping-related searches.
Already there are those who speculate that Google’s power has peaked. If it hasn’t, it will. As marketing industry journal Ad Age reported in January, “Google’s share of search ad revenue is declining and will continue to erode each year.”
Google is no Standard Oil or AT&T. Unlike those 20th-century hegemons, it is in a nonstop fight against formidable rivals for customers, revenue, and market share.
Search is only one area in which Google faces pressure from the other tech giants. Google Docs is challenged by Microsoft Word and Apple Pages; Google’s Android battles the iPhone; Google Assistant competes with Amazon’s Alexa. And in the burgeoning market for cloud computing, Google is hardly more than a bit player .
None of this adds up to a case for prosecution. Google is big, but the purpose of antitrust law isn’t to curb bigness. It is to protect consumers from harm. And Google, far from hurting consumers, has showered them with gains.
Google gives away its foremost product, Internet search, for free. Ditto most of its hundreds of other products, from Gmail to Translate to Google Earth to Waze. It plowed $14 billion into R&D last year, more than any company in America except Amazon. Of the brands Americans love most, according to Morning Consult’s authoritative polling, Google is number one.
If the consumer’s best interest is the standard, the case for breaking up Google is nonexistent. There will be time enough to cry “Monopoly!” and let slip the dogs of antitrust when there is evidence that Google injures its users or is immune to market discipline. Long before that day arrives, however, Google will have taken its place as just another attraction along memory lane, a once-mighty corporation that was king of the hill — until it wasn’t.