Opinion

The Google Antitrust Trial Is Really About the Future of A.I.

The Google antitrust trial, which began last week, is ostensibly focused on the past — on a series of deals that Google made with other companies over the past two decades. The prosecution in the case, U.S. et al. v. Google, contends that Google illegally spent billions of dollars paying off Samsung and Apple to prevent anyone else from gaining a foothold in the market for online search.

But the true focus of the trial, like that of the Federal Trade Commission’s coming trial of Facebook’s parent company, Meta, on monopolization charges, is on the future. For the verdict will effectively establish the rules governing tech competition for the next decade, including the battle over commercialized artificial intelligence, as well as newer technologies we cannot yet envision.

The history of antitrust prosecutions shows this again and again: Loosening the grip of a controlling monopolist may not always solve the problem at hand (here, an online search monopoly). But it can open up closed markets, shake up the industry and spark innovation in unexpected areas. If Judge Amit P. Mehta of the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia, who is presiding over the trial without a jury, decides this case correctly, he’ll be helping the entire tech world and the American economy more broadly.

Consider the antitrust lawsuit that led to the breakup of AT&T’s telephone monopoly in 1984. At the time, prosecutors were focused on lowering the pricing of long-distance telephone calls and giving consumers greater choice. But more important and less anticipated, the breakup helped to jump-start the internet revolution of the 1990s, in part by making it easier for companies to conduct business over phone lines and for customers to connect modems to them.

Or consider IBM’s monopoly on mainframe computing, which was challenged by private and public antitrust suits in the 1960s and ’70s. At the time, a chief concern was the use of “vaporware” tactics in the mainframe market, which affected a now-long-dead company called the Control Data Corporation. But what matters today is that IBM, out of fear that it would be broken up, unbundled its software from its hardware, which created a market for software sold as a separate product — spawning, over time, what is now a multi-trillion-dollar industry. The suit also weakened IBM at the very time that personal computers were emerging, benefiting tiny upstarts like Apple and Microsoft.

As this history suggests, it’s unlikely that we know exactly what new forms of computing a verdict against Google would make room for. The path of technological evolution is not predictable. But we do know that monopolies tend to stifle innovation and keep too much for themselves, and that forcing a monopolist to back off yields fruit.

The story of Google’s own creation is another good example. Google began as a small start-up with a great product, but it was also a beneficiary of federal government intervention. Google began its operations reliant on Microsoft’s Internet Explorer browser, which had a roughly 95 percent market share in the early 2000s. And Microsoft was running its own search engine on Internet Explorer, then called MSN Search (later renamed Bing). Fortunately for Google, Microsoft had just been put through the wringer by the Justice Department, whose antitrust lawsuit nearly led to a breakup of the company. In the end, Google beat Bing in part because it had a better product — but also because it wasn’t facing the nasty Microsoft of the 1990s, but rather a weakened and chastened Microsoft operating under federal oversight.

Today Google is both interested in and threatened by the large language model technology of companies like OpenAI, which developed ChatGPT. Google has spent many billions of dollars on A.I. research, including developing its own chatbot, Bard, and recently rushed to incorporate dozens of A.I. features into its products. But as a giant, entrenched company, Google has the disadvantage of needing to protect its existing revenue streams and keep its investors, customers and advertisers happy. It has a strong incentive to make sure that A.I. doesn’t turn into something that disrupts or destroys its current business.

At the trial in Washington last week, the prosecution (which includes the federal as well as state governments) made clear that Google leveraged its money and power over the past decade to stifle competition, paying companies like Apple and Samsung billions of dollars to make Google the default search setting for their phones. Apple also agreed to stay out of Google’s business: handling search queries.

That’s why Judge Mehta should force Google to sell off its Chrome browser (which has a roughly 63 percent market share) and ban the company’s “pay for default” deals with the operating systems for Apple and Android phones. Otherwise, Google will surely be tempted to use its money and control over Chrome to ensure that any rivals in the field of A.I. aren’t as successful with their products as Google is with its own.

The cases against Google and Meta are, in effect, a distinctively American form of industrial policy. Many countries choose to subsidize their tech monopolists, but the United States has shown that undermining a monopolist’s dominance can be a better alternative. Doing so also serves to check what is perhaps the least accountable form of power in the United States, a power that at times feels like a threat to the idea of rule by the people. These are some of the reasons that the Biden administration, for which I worked for two years on tech competition policy, has made a robust effort to rein in the power of big tech.

Ultimately, antitrust law’s most important function is to rebalance economic power, taming the excesses that are the inevitable consequences of a capitalist economy. The tech industries are prone to monopoly, yet as history suggests, they can be extraordinarily generative when given the right nudge. The point of the Google prosecution is not to hurt Google but to force it to make way for the next generation of technologists and their dreams.

Tim Wu (@superwuster) is a law professor at Columbia and the author, most recently, of “The Curse of Bigness: Antitrust in the New Gilded Age.”

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