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After years of prodding from competitors and critics, Google is facing "a mountain of lawsuits" challenging its dominance of the internet, said Jennifer Saba and Gina Chon at Reuters BreakingViews. Recently, 38 states charged the search-engine giant with trying to use its power to "muscle its way" into similar control in areas from cars to smarthome devices. The new claims add to a suit filed earlier by 10 states, led by Texas, that accuses Google of misusing its power in internet advertising. All this comes on top of an October lawsuit from the Justice Department centered on deals the company made with phone makers to give its search engine a favored spot. Taken together, the lawsuits promise "the release of reams of documents, including potentially embarrassing emails" that will leave Google locked in litigation for years. For Google, the burden of defending itself could turn out to be "death by 1,000 briefs." This is just the start of a long and painful process, said Brent Kendall at The Wall Street Journal. The U.S. district judge in Washington "set a tentative trial date" for the DOJ's case: Sept. 12, 2023. "If anybody thought we would be getting to trial quickly," the judge said, "this certainly will dispel that notion."
The most sensational wrinkle in these antitrust cases comes in the Texas suit, said Gilad Edelman at Wired. In it, Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton says Google made "an unlawful agreement" with Facebook — a deal code-named Jedi Blue by the companies — to send publishers to Google rather than competing ad platforms. This "falls under Section 1 of the Sherman Antitrust Act," which bars concerted efforts between companies to restrain competition, and is a simpler case to make than proving Google abused monopoly power. That said, "the complaint is maddeningly redacted," and the suit was brought by an attorney general who is "fresh off a losing effort to overturn the presidential election."
The three major lawsuits filed against the company include a raft of accusations, but are short on demonstrating "tangible consumer harm," said Billy Binion at Reason. What most rankles the states and the Justice Department is "Google's bigness." Yes, "the tech giant maintains the biggest share of internet search, with current estimates landing at 88 percent." But the remedies being tossed around just make things worse for users. States want to break up Google's businesses to give competitors such as Yelp and TripAdvisor a chance to top off search results, which now tend to highlight Google's own services. Instead of getting "direct answers and relevant information" you'll scroll through pages of inferior results — an outcome that consumers don't actually want.
The Google suits have already become entangled in partisan warfare, said The Washington Post in an editorial, and it's hard to separate the legitimate concerns about competition from the "state-sponsored bullying." Google's role as buyer, seller, and middleman in the ad markets points to a need for regulation. But the Texas case was "filed exclusively by Republican attorneys general" and has so many redactions it is "impossible to evaluate on the merits." Democrats want the incoming Biden administration to "grapple with companies' outsize power," but the new president will have to first "dispel the partisan cloud that his predecessor has cast" over tech regulation.
This article was first published in the latest issue of The Week magazine. If you want to read more like it, you can try six risk-free issues of the magazine here.