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Google's antitrust showdown begins this week

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

Inside a courtroom here in Washington, D.C., a major showdown gets underway tomorrow. It's between Google and the Justice Department. And it is the federal government's first major monopoly trial of our current era of big tech. But joining me now is Rebecca Haw Allensworth. She's a professor of antitrust law at Vanderbilt Law School. Professor Allensworth, welcome.

REBECCA HAW ALLENSWORTH: Thank you. Hello.

KELLY: Hi. Briefly explain what this case centers on, what Google is alleged to have done.

ALLENSWORTH: This is a monopolization case where the government is saying that Google is big. It's dominant. It's really the only one for search, in part because it has exclusive dealing contracts with various distributors, including Mozilla and Apple, that make it the default and that that default essentially makes it impossible for other search engines to compete.

KELLY: Although I'm guessing Google would argue, look. You can change the default if you want. You do have options.

ALLENSWORTH: Yes. One of their defenses is competition is just a click away. So if you want to reconfigure your phone - not that I know how to do this...

KELLY: (Laughter).

ALLENSWORTH: ...To have a different search engine in there, then, you know, you can do that.

KELLY: I mean, I was reading that Google enjoys something like 90% of the search engine market in the U.S. and comparable numbers worldwide. It is kind of hard to argue - no? - that they don't enjoy a monopoly.

ALLENSWORTH: That's right. And one of the most interesting things about this case to me is that they have not argued that they don't have a monopoly. So almost all monopolization cases - the alleged monopolist is going to challenge that. And they're going to try to draw the market in a way that makes them, you know, either a small fish in a big pond or, you know, worst case scenario, a big fish in a big pond. But Google has not done that. And I think that's just because they kind of feel like they can't.

KELLY: Right. That's not going to be their strongest argument. I mean, I was trying to think of precedent for a trial of this scale, and it appears you would have to go back to the 1990s, specifically to 1998 and the antitrust case that the Justice Department brought against Microsoft. What feels the same? What feels quite different now a quarter of a century later?

ALLENSWORTH: That case is really kind of a blueprint for this case. If you read the government's complaint in the Google case, it almost reads as if they've taken the complaint in the Microsoft case and just replaced each reference to Microsoft with Google. I think that they're trying to invoke that on purpose because, of course, that's the case that the Justice Department won. That case was about a monopolist using that monopoly to kind of bully the distributors into making their product the default. And in the case of Microsoft, that was in order to stop a product called Netscape, which we've now - you know, has gone by the wayside because Netscape posed a threat to Microsoft's monopoly. It's a little bit different in that it's not a case about leverage. So the Microsoft case was about Microsoft using its monopoly on operating systems and leveraging it into browsers. The Google case is just about search. So that's one sense in which it's a little bit different, but they're quite similar cases.

KELLY: What are the stakes here for Google?

ALLENSWORTH: You know, on the one hand, it's a high-stakes case because this is obviously very high-profile. This is the first major antitrust trial for monopolization since the Microsoft case. At the same time, it's not clear to me that if Google loses that they will therefore lose their monopoly, at least not anytime soon. There's a lot of other reasons besides these exclusive dealing contracts that Google is so dominant. And even if these exclusive dealing contracts are a big piece of that puzzle, it's almost too late to really undo the harm that they've done. Google has become synonymous with search in our minds, but a finding that they're unlawful and they need to go away won't necessarily immediately change that.

KELLY: Rebecca Haw Allensworth. She's a professor of antitrust law at Vanderbilt Law School. Thank you.

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

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