A historic antitrust trial against Googlebegins today in a federal courtroom in Washington—the biggest since the government sued Microsoft 25 years ago. And there are some striking similarities between the two cases. Microsoft’s desktop operating system was in those days almost everyone’s entry point into the world of personal computing, just as Google’s search engine is today almost everyone’s entry point into the world of search.
I was Washington bureau chief for TheWall Street Journal in 1998 and can’t overstate how much the trial dominated my attention for the months it lasted. Attorneys for both sides lobbied the press as fervently as they argued in court. And we all stood transfixed when watching Bill Gates’ obfuscatory video deposition under the questioning of super lawyer David Boies, whom the Justice Department hired to prosecute the case. The computer mogul left long gaps between his answers and said “I don’t recall” so many times even the judge laughed. The case ended with the court ruling that Microsoft was indeed a monopoly. The final result was a settlement restricting predatory behavior but not requiring an AT&T-style breakup.
Google circa 2023 is very different from Microsoft circa 2004. The introduction of ChatGPT last fall has changed the conversation from whether Google’s search dominance is unassailable to whether it is already in inevitable decline—as Jeremy Kahn’s deep dive earlier this summer, which you should read here, explored. Google’s disruptive moment may be imminent. In comparison to Microsoft, this case seems almost anticlimactic.
The trial is scheduled to continue into late November, and another round of court filings and arguments will likely follow. If the judge determines Google has been breaking the law, there will be another trial to determine remedies. All of which underscores the fundamental problem with using antitrust law to regulate the tech industry. The…
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