in the history of the world has a single company had so much control
over what people know and think. Yet Washington has been slow to
recognize that Google’s power is a problem, much less embrace the
obvious solution: breaking the company up.
accounts for about 90 percent of all Internet searches; by any honest
assessment, it holds a monopoly at the very gateway to information in
the modern world. From there, the company’s power radiates outward,
dominating everything from maps to smartphone operating systems to video
distribution — vacuuming up huge quantities of highly specific data
about users along the way.
engine market share in 2018
with Facebook, Google owns sites and services that, by some estimates,influence
70 percentof all Internet traffic. Not
coincidentally, the two companies also form a duopoly that gets73
percent of all digital advertising in the United States, and
virtually all the growth in ad spending, on the Internet. Once the
lifeblood of a vital free press, and later of a vast array of
independent sites serving every possible interest, ad dollars
increasingly flow to two tech giants that organize information produced
at other people’s expense.
power is bound to grow still more. Last year, itspent
more on federal lobbyingthan any other company.
By tweaking the way information appears on search pages, Google can
already promote its own websites and banish competitors to digital
oblivion. (Last year, European regulators fined the company $2.7
billion, alleging that it favored its own services over competitors’.)
In coming years, as Google’s vast data trove feeds ever more
sophisticated artificial-intelligence algorithms, the search giant’s
lead over its competitors will lengthen.
2017 federal lobbying spends by tech giants
the meantime, the company keeps getting bigger. When it can’t beat
competitors, it buys them, as it has done more than 200 times since
going public. Increasingly, startups aspire not to dethrone Google, but
to be acquired by it. It comes as little comfort that fellow giants
Facebook, Amazon, and Apple hem in Google here and there. Competing in
an information economy shouldn’t require a market capitalization of a
half-trillion dollars or more.
the problem at hand is not merely economic. “A handful of people working
at a handful of tech companies steer the thoughts of billions of people
every day,” notes formerGoogle
design ethicist Tristan Harris. A recentstudyof
10,000 people from 39 countries suggests Google “has likely been
determining the outcomes of upwards of 25 percent of the national
elections in the world for several years now, with increasing impact
each year as Internet penetration has grown.”
is a breakup of Google so unthinkable? Google’s products are undeniably
convenient. And, at least on the surface, they’re free; average users
are paying not with money, but with their personal data. The company has
a near-spotless public image. The famous maxim from the company’s early
years — “don’t be evil” — helped cement Google’s public image as one of
the good guys.
is ironic that the company perhaps most responsible for unleashing a
tidal wave of human creativity, learning, and, yes, competition is also
stifling it. It is frustrating competition, discouraging innovation,
punishing American business, and distorting the free marketplace of
commerce and ideas. Europe has led the wider fight over the right to
privacy and the regulation of data, but the time is right for the United
States to lead on dismantling tech monopolies — starting with the most
powerful player. So, how to start?
are several ways to carve up Alphabet, the holding company of
which Google is by far the largest and most important piece.
particular lines of division are less important than the act
itself, but one of the most promising splits would be toseparate
Google search from the rest of the company’s venturesand
open up the market for the advertising that goes along with
search to other vendors.
YouTube and Google’s advertising units into stand-alone
companiesand separate them from
Alphabet’s other ventures.
for instance, isestimatedto
be a $15 billion per year business with 1.5 billion monthly
users. (Alphabet doesn’t release official breakdowns of the
company’s revenue.) If accurate, that would represent more than
10 percent of Alphabet’s ad revenue and about 5 percent of
the advertising units, DoubleClick and AdMob, were spun off into
stand-alone companies, meanwhile, it would introduce more
competition into the digital advertising marketplace.
more aggressive approach would also makestand-alone
companies out of YouTube, Android, and Google’s cloud services
(Gmail, cloud storage, maps, etc.), separating all of
them from Google search.
company recently announced that its cloud business has grown to
a healthy $1 billion per quarter, with more growth projected.
splitting off the Android operating system and its associated
elements would fundamentally change Google’s relationship with
the booming mobile market, the future for search and
that separation is critical to restoring real competition.
breakup is critical
at the corporate structure of Alphabet and you’ll see a company that
spans dozens of fields: e-mail and thermostats, mobile phones and
driverless cars, artificial intelligence and virtual reality. But look
at the ledgers and you’ll see that Alphabet is primarily an advertising
company that dabbles in blue-sky technology projects. More than 80
percent of the company’s revenue comes from advertising — ads on search
results, commercials on YouTube, and across the Google ecosystem. Google
controls 88 percent of the search advertising market. “If you’re not
paying for the product, you are the product,” may be too blithe a way of
putting it. But that’s the ad-driven business model that’s been so
come at a steep cost, especially — full disclosure — for the publishing
industry. “Billions of dollars have been reallocated from creators of
content to owners of monopoly platforms. All content creators dependent
on advertising must negotiate with Google or Facebook as aggregator, the
sole lifeline between themselves and the vast Internet cloud,”notes
Jonathan Taplin, author of “Move Fast and Break Things: How
Google, Facebook and Amazon Cornered Culture and Undermined Democracy.”
has proposed some tools that could help tame Google, short of breaking
it up. One would be to reassess the 1998 Digital Millennium Copyright
Act, which grants almost total immunity to tech companies for copyright
violations by their users. YouTube now earns billions of dollars in ad
revenue off of user-contributed clips. But under the law, it’s up to
individual writers, musicians, and filmmakers to chase down piracy of
their work. The law reflected the zeitgeist of the early Internet era,
when any whisper of taxation, regulation, or copyright obligation looked
like an existential threat to fledgling tech firms, but circumstances
have clearly changed.
tool would be to prevent Google from acquiring additional tech companies
like Spotify or Snapchat. Indeed, the Justice Department should be
taking a closer look at acquisitions by all the major tech platforms.
When Facebook took over Instagram and WhatsApp, the Obama administration
shrugged, as if the social-media giant were just buying a couple of
faddish apps for kids — rather than eliminating future rivals.
third option would be for the government to regulate Google like a
public utility, forcing it to license out its algorithms, for instance,
to help spur competition. This is akin to what the government did in
1956: A consent decree required AT&T to license all its 7,800
patents royalty-free in exchange for allowing the company to continue to
maintain its telephone monopoly. Some services, the logic goes, are
natural monopolies; an upstart search engine is no more likely to
outmaneuver Google than an upstart phone company was to string up new
phone lines from coast to coast.
the end, though, regulation of the Bell System wasn’t enough to create a
dynamic telecom marketplace. Three decades later, the Justice Department
forced the company to split itself up.
be sure, a consensus about how best to break up the company developed
only after years of public discussion — about AT&T’s power broadly,
and about the specific intricacies of its vast holdings. Similar debate
preceded the Justice Department’s actions against Microsoft in the 1990s
— which helped companies like Amazon, Facebook, and Google flourish.
that to happen with Google, Americans need first to start talking about
it. In the early days of Alexander Graham Bell’s telephone company, or
John D. Rockefeller’s Standard Oil, few realized how much influence
either firm would come to exercise. Similarly, we need to shift the way
we think about the dominant tech platforms — and especially Google —
which have steadily grown, within most American adults’ living memory,
from scrappy startups into forces dominating the economy. Our public
debates about these issues need to accelerate, too, moving at the speed
of technological change, rather than the speed of past precedent.
Bewailing the power of tech platforms is not enough; the United States
needs to develop regulatory and, yes, antitrust strategies for each of
is a monopoly because we’ve allowed itto
become one. We’ve allowed it to grow at the expense of
copyright holders. At the expense of rival search and advertising
ventures. At the expense of startups that might someday challenge the
giants. At the expense of a narrowing of the way a society acquires
information. Today, the act of searching for an answer is synonymous
with Googling. And the first answer for how to rein in this digital
giant is also the best: break it up.
An earlier version of this editorial misstated the value of Google's
cloud business. It has grown to $1 billion per quarter, not per year.