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News Brief: Google Faces Lawsuit, COVID-19 Vaccine, Nigeria Protests

NOEL KING, HOST:

The Department of Justice is suing Google.

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

It accuses the company of maintaining an illegal monopoly on Internet searches. Now, Google is not the only search engine, but it's so widely used that its very name has become a verb, meaning to search on the Internet. If you doubt me, just Google it. The company struck deals with companies like Apple to make its search engine the default on devices like the iPhone. The Department of Justice says that harms consumers because they then have no real option but to use Google. We should note that Google is an NPR sponsor.

KING: Shannon Bond is a tech correspondent for NPR. She's with us now. Good morning, Shannon.

SHANNON BOND, BYLINE: Good morning, Noel.

KING: So this lawsuit is a big one, yeah?

BOND: Yeah. Well, you know, it's been more than 20 years since the government's last big battle with a tech company. That was Microsoft back in the 1990s. And this case goes really right at the heart of Google's dominance, its search business. So many people use Google Search. The Department of Justice says it has an 80% market share in the U.S. and the company makes billions of dollars selling ads in search results. But the government says that Google has unfairly stifled competition and that's why it's been so successful. Google says the lawsuit is flawed, and it believes the facts and the law are on its side.

KING: Unfairly stifled competition - how, exactly?

BOND: Well, it has spent over the years billions of dollars to become the default search engine on many browsers and smartphones. And the government says basically that's made it really hard for other companies to compete and has meant less choice for consumers.

KING: Other competitors don't have billions of dollars to spend. OK. So what does this mean for the other big tech companies? Because Facebook, Amazon, Apple, they've all been accused of monopolistic behavior, haven't they?

BOND: That's right. And regulators have also been investigating all of those companies. So, you know, I can only imagine they are very much on alert. You know, Noel, for so many years under both Republican and Democratic administrations, there just wasn't much regulation of Silicon Valley. You know, these companies were darlings. They were held up as examples of innovation. But recently, the tone in Washington has changed. Here's how Gene Kimmelman, a former Justice Department antitrust lawyer, put it.

GENE KIMMELMAN: It's the end of hands-off of the tech sector. It's probably the beginning of a decade of a series of lawsuits against companies like Google who dominate in the digital marketplace.

BOND: And it's not only the federal government looking at this. Fifty state attorneys general were also investigating Google and some of these other companies as well.

KING: And what about Congress? Because they've been hauling tech executives in front of them to answer questions for a while. What's their next move after this lawsuit?

BOND: That's right. House Democrats wrapped up their own recent investigation of big tech. They found that all four of these companies are monopolies. Republicans have their own line of attack. We hear frequently claims that the tech companies are biased against conservatives, even though there's no real evidence to support that. Google's CEO is actually set to appear before the Senate next week, along with the Facebook and Twitter CEOs, to answer questions. And to be clear, the Justice Department says there's no relationship between investigations into bias and this lawsuit.

KING: OK. Something I'm curious about - so we have 50 state attorneys general who were investigating Google, 11 of them joined on to this lawsuit. What about the rest of them?

BOND: That's right. And the only AGs who signed on were from Republican-led states. You know, it is out of the ordinary for the Justice Department to announce something like this just two weeks before Election Day. Its policy is to not take actions that could influence an election. And officials say this has nothing to do with that. But there are Democratic attorneys general investigating Google. New York's Letitia James said they might join this federal lawsuit but not until down the road.

KING: Fair enough. NPR's Shannon Bond. Thanks, Shannon.

BOND: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

KING: All right. Researchers are preparing for a step toward finding a coronavirus vaccine, a particularly terrifying step. It's called a challenge trial, and it means you give the vaccine to people and then you expose them to the virus to see if the vaccine works.

INSKEEP: Challenge trials are used to test vaccines for diseases like typhoid, cholera and malaria. The difference here is that if new vaccines for those illnesses do not work, there are at least ways to treat the people who've been infected. For COVID-19, of course, there is no cure, and treatments are still limited, so a challenge trial raises some real ethical concerns. Arthur Caplan is a bioethics professor at New York University School of Medicine.

ARTHUR CAPLAN: We don't fully understand the COVID virus. We're going to give it to people, intentionally make them sick. What if there's a death? What if there's long-term disability? What if things go really sour for the subjects? That's just going to look like an ethics catastrophe.

INSKEEP: Researchers in the United Kingdom still think a challenge trial is worth it, and they plan to try one soon.

KING: Joe Palca is a correspondent for NPR's Science Desk. He's with us now. Good morning, Joe.

JOE PALCA, BYLINE: Good morning, Noel.

KING: I want to ask you about what Arthur Caplan said there. What if there's a death? What if there's a long-term disability? What is the argument for putting people at risk when there's no cure, when treatments are limited?

PALCA: Well, that puts a lot of ethicists in a very uncomfortable place. They don't think that's something maybe that should happen. But on the other hand, there are some things that you can learn from a challenge study like this that you just can't learn in other cases. For example, if you want to test a second vaccine very quickly, if you think it might be working better, you can try it and get an answer in a matter of weeks instead of recruiting 10,000, 20,000, 30,000 volunteers. If you want to see how long a vaccine works, if you want to reinfect somebody, then you have a model for doing that. You have somebody who could be - you could expose them a second time. So there's certain questions that you can answer. Another is if you prevent someone from getting sick with the virus, are they still capable of transmitting it? You don't have that kind of granular knowledge when you do a big study with tens of thousands of people.

KING: OK. So in some ways, the urgency here goes to the heart of explaining why this is worth it.

PALCA: Yeah.

KING: Let me ask you - this is going on in the U.K. - when are these studies going to start?

PALCA: They're going to start, if they start, next year. When I say if, it's because there's a group in England called the Medicines and Healthcare Products Regulatory Agency, which is more or less the U.K. equivalent of the Food and Drug Administration. And they're going to convene a special ethics panel that's going to look at the questions that this kind of study raises and decide whether it's worth going forward.

KING: Is there anything similar being contemplated in the U.S.?

PALCA: Yes, in fact. The National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases isn't planning one of these studies. I should say that right up front. But they have said to a lab in the United States, look, we want to develop a strain of the virus that perhaps they've taken from a person who was infected and didn't get very sick and see if they can grow that successfully so that they have maybe a not so dangerous form of the virus that they could use in subjects in a challenge experiment like this.

KING: Really interesting stuff. NPR's Joe Palca. Thanks, Joe.

PALCA: You're welcome.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

KING: All right. For almost two weeks now, young people in Nigeria have been in the streets protesting police brutality and the lack of economic opportunity in that country.

INSKEEP: At times, protesters have even shut down Lagos, which is the biggest city in Africa. People are inspired by the music of Nigerian superstars, including Burna Boy.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "MONSTERS YOU MADE")

BURNA BOY: (Singing) It's like the heads of the state ain't comprehending the hate that the oppressed generate when they been working like slaves to get some minimum wage.

KING: And then last night, Nigerian security forces opened fire on those protesters in Lagos. NPR's Africa correspondent Eyder Peralta joins us now from Nairobi. Hey, Eyder.

EYDER PERALTA, BYLINE: Hey, Noel.

KING: What exactly went down last night?

PERALTA: So what had been peaceful protests, they turned violent. Overnight Monday and into Tuesday, mobs started burning down police stations across Nigeria. So yesterday, the governor of Lagos set a 4 p.m. curfew, but protesters defied that. They stayed on the streets. Many of them stayed on this place called Lekki tollgate. It's an iconic bridge in Lagos. And as the sun started setting, security forces in uniform, they opened fire on protesters. A disc jockey, DJ Switch, who had been that many of these protests, she was livestreaming at the bridge when this happened. Let's listen.

(SOUNDBITE OF VIDEO)

DJ SWITCH: Please (unintelligible) you can go the medical ambulance. Go. They can come to Lekki tollgate (ph).

PERALTA: The footage shows demonstrators trying to help other demonstrators. They're trying to stop the bleeding. They're crying for help. The governor of Lagos said this morning that a couple of dozen people were at hospitals. Human rights groups and activists say there are fatalities, but we have not confirmed deaths. And I should note that we are getting reports that protesters are back on the streets this morning, and there are already clashes with security forces.

KING: OK. Now, the things that they're protesting - police brutality, lack of economic opportunity - these are, like, big, broad things. Did something specific set these protests off?

PERALTA: Yeah, it started with a viral video of a police shooting. That was about two weeks ago. And they went out to the streets to demand that the government put an end to to this brutal police squad called SARS. And the president, he did that. He ordered the squad disbanded. But then the protests continue to grow. They have now turned into the biggest, longest-running protests Nigeria has seen since the '80s. So police brutality, that was just a trigger. But young people took to the streets because they had many grievances, especially economic. Nigeria's unemployment rate is now up to 27%. And it really gets back to that song that you played at the top. It's about young people, many of them with college degrees, sitting at home with no jobs, no prospects. It's a generation that feels abandoned and betrayed by their government.

KING: Does the government have any response to that? I mean, economic complaints, concerns are big, can the government do anything?

PERALTA: They say they have been accommodating, but they also say that they have to take steps to restore public order.

KING: OK. NPR's Eyder Peralta in Nairobi reporting on protests in Lagos, Nigeria. Thanks, Eyder.

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