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Antitrust Lawsuits: Google 2020 Vs. Microsoft 1998

TONYA MOSLEY, HOST:

The Department of Justice today teamed up with 11 state attorneys general to file an antitrust lawsuit against Google. The suit accuses Google of using its search platform and the advertising power attached to it to defy competition and hurt consumers. The lawsuit is the government's biggest tech antitrust complaint since the landmark action against Microsoft more than 20 years ago. I should say that both Google and Microsoft are financial supporters of NPR. And joining us to take a look at what's similar and what's different from the Microsoft antitrust complaint is Tim Wu. He's a law professor at Columbia University who's written about technology and antitrust issues.

Welcome to the show, Tim.

TIM WU: Thanks.

MOSLEY: How similar is this complaint against Google to the case the DOJ brought against Microsoft in the 1990s?

WU: You know, I think it shows that Silicon Valley is not the only place that knows how to clone a successful product because I think it's very similar. You know, the basic case against Microsoft was that they were shutting down the channels for Netscape. They made it impossible to compete with them. And Google is accused of doing basically the same thing.

MOSLEY: How effective was that case really in reining in Microsoft?

WU: I think that case had a big effect because it kept Microsoft away from trying to pick favorites on the browser. The browser is sort of the keystone of competition on the Web. And Microsoft, you know, in full circle, wasn't able to favor its own search engine over Google, wasn't able to tamp down Facebook. It didn't get a real start in mobile operating. So there's a lot of ways in which I think it slowed down Microsoft's domination of the early Web, and I guess now things are coming full circle.

MOSLEY: You've written that Microsoft itself was allowed to grow and flourish because of an earlier antitrust case against IBM. Then Microsoft got sued by the government, and then a new generation of tech firms, including Google, grew up to become the new titans that we now know. And now there's this case against Google. Who stands to benefit from it?

WU: The beneficiaries would be anyone who's trying to get into this space. You know, search has been a no-go zone for a long time. And so it'd favor some of the existing players, like DuckDuckGo, maybe Bing. But it would probably most favor someone we haven't heard of yet who...

MOSLEY: Yeah.

WU: ...Thinks they've got some great idea for a search but hasn't dared go into that area.

MOSLEY: And what, beyond search engine operators, would benefit from the breaking up? You know, what else could happen if this case is successful? Google is part of every facet of life for us. You know, I have children just downstairs using Google products for school.

WU: Yeah. I think this case signals that the antitrust winter is over. I think it loosens, in sort of a broader sense, opportunities for market access for a lot of smaller players or investors who might have been thinking of entering but haven't.

And then more specifically for Google's products, you know, for a while now, Google's been able to sort of sit back and presume that they don't really have to do much to stay the favorite. You know, Google's search engine itself has just become more and more covered in ads over the last five years or so. So I think it actually also helps keep Google fit to face a little bit of competition. And hopefully, that's what this lawsuit would generate.

MOSLEY: What do you think will happen? I mean, do you really think the government's case will be successful like it was back in 1998?

WU: I think the government's got a strong case. I think it's - they've chosen almost the easiest case to win basically by cloning Microsoft. So I think they've got a strong case. It seems to me surprising that Google wouldn't want to settle this and just say, OK, we'll make these concessions. And so a lot depends on who wins this election. I don't know whether the next appointee will want to fight this to the wire, maybe even try for a breakup or just take a settlement. And I think that's the big question out there.

MOSLEY: That's professor Tim Wu with Columbia Law School and author of "The Curse Of Bigness: Antitrust In The New Gilded Age."

Professor, thank you so much.

WU: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.