There’s a lot of buzzwords surrounding big tech at the moment, including things like “monopoly,” “data privacy,” and “anti-competitive practices.” Many of these words seem to be floating around the head of one of the biggest tech giants of all: Google.
Though Google’s name has been in the news for things like the current US lawsuit or the ongoing Epic Games case, there always seems to be a common thread. All of these legal cases posit the assertion that Google is a monopoly. While many of these claims have to do with app distribution, you may not fully grasp how far the Google monopoly actually extends. We’re here to show you how much the tech giant is really filtering into your daily life. Read on to find out more.
Google as a search engine
Many of us first discovered Google as one of the most effective search engines on the market. Nowadays it’s about the only one people use. The company controls around 90% of global web searches. You might be saying, what’s the problem? Well, we’ll tell you.
With Google controlling so much of the global web searches, it has given them a unique ability to create “an unchallenged gateway to the internet for billions of users worldwide”. Much of this is mentioned in the US Justice Department’s lawsuit against the company, as they point out that “American consumers are forced to accept Google’s policies, privacy practices, and use of personal data; and new companies with innovative business models cannot emerge from Google’s long shadow.”
Is it really a “monopoly?”
According to Associated Press, a monopoly has previously been defined by the cost of a product. However that doesn’t necessarily fly in the digital world. Google abuses its power through making deals to ensure that it’s the first (and often only) search engine that pops up as a default on various platforms and devices. Those arguing against the tech giant point out that while the monopoly may not be monetary, “there’s a real cost to us, in terms of privacy, attention and data. It may not be dollars and cents. But it’s that price we should be concerned about.”
But who is Google really worried about?
Who are Google’s customers? You may think it’s the people making these searches, however in reality advertisers are their real customers. It’s not a shock that Google would rather focus on those paying the bills, rather than those of us suffering the consequences of privacy and data. Have you noticed that you’re scrolling through a lot more advertised content to get to your search results? A shocking 80–90% of all online ad impressions for Australia passed through at least one Google service in 2020. Google also uses searches to redirect back to their own content (like YouTube or Maps), allowing them to gain even more personal data from you.
Google as a data collector
The data collection portion of Google is really where the arguments about privacy come into play. So what does it mean when we say that Google is using its various platforms to gather personal data? We’ll give you an example. Have you ever tried to search for a product, only to be bombarded by images of different options everywhere you turn? We can bet that nearly everyone has. But your search history isn’t the only factor at play.
Any time you use any Google service, whether that be a YouTube video, talking to your smartphone, or even just checking a route to a store you’re interested in, it’s all feeding the beast. Google then uses personal data from all of its different platforms to grow the overall knowledge of its user base, translating to even more pointed ads. And Google really wants to ensure that you’re sticking with their products. A recent study by Markup revealed that of 15,000 searches, 41% of the first page of results is devoted to other Google products. As congress pointed out, this is dangerous as they give “prominent placement to Google’s vertical content over superior, more relevant competitors’ products
No way around it
However don’t assume you’re safe if you’re using apps like Waze to get around (because Google owns them too!), or if YouTube really isn’t your thing. The tech giant is taking in vast quantities of information about anyone using products such as Google Search, YouTube, Gmail, Google Calendar, Google Docs, Google Contacts, Google Sites, Google Meet, Google Chat, Cloud Search and more.
Google as a travel guide
Travel might not be at the top of people’s to-do lists in the current climate, however it’s still an important portion being controlled by the Google monopoly.
A few years ago, Google Flights joined the myriad of platforms you could use to plan your travels. Since then, Google has been pushing this product above and beyond that of competing sites. This means that not only may we not be getting the best travel results, but it’s actually diminishing choice and competition when it comes to other travel companies.
“The fact that Google is leveraging its dominance as a search engine into taking market share away from travel competitors is no longer even debatable.”Skift, Research firm
This wouldn’t be as much of an issue if Google was actually offering a superior product, however we see from rankings and studies alike that is not the case. Notably absent in Frommer’s 2020 ranking of the best airfare search sites, and Markup revealed that Google Flights doesn’t even show all available flights, as they are limited by their software.
It comes as no surprise then, that competitors with more “specialized search businesses, such as Yelp, Expedia and Tripadvisor, have been among the most vocal in arguing that they’re harmed by Google’s business practices.” Consequently many of them have praised the current antitrust lawsuits. Seth Kalvert, Tripadvisor’s senior vice president, stated that “provide the framework for meaningful action to stop Google from leveraging its gatekeeper position to benefit its owned services and increase its profits at the expense of competition and consumers.”
So you might need to do a little extra digging before your next vacation.
Google as a mobile apps distributor
This topic may come as the most familiar, given the numerous lawsuits against Google Play in recent years. While many might be using the app store because it’s the easiest option, it’s important to examine why that is. Why is Google Play the standard in devices instead of one of the plethora of other app stores available?
Getting rid of the competition
The US lawsuit alleges that Google “bought off developers so they would not support competing app stores, and that through numerous secret projects it intended to pay Samsung Electronics Co (005930.KS), whose rival app store posed the biggest threat, to stop competing”. This lack of competition allows them to charge developers an “unfair” 30% percentage, as well as increasing customer price. The most recent example of this comes from Epic Games. In the brief period they included their own payment option in Fortnite on the app store, in-app purchases flooded their site, as they were able to price their items more fairly and connect directly to their public.
“Google leverages its monopoly power with Android to unlawfully maintain its monopoly in the Android app distribution market.”US lawsuit
With this iron-clad grip on the Android app market, developers are unable to use their own in-app billing systems. But it goes even further, as many smartphone companies can’t even promote alternative app stores. With alternative app stores promoting a more competitive environment, which we can see in countries like China where the biggest market share comes in around 26.5%, this is detrimental to the market and consumer choice overall.
But what about alternative app stores?
Now you may be thinking you at least have the option of choosing alternative app stores yourself if you want to get out from under Google’s thumb. That would seem reasonable, but history has shown that is not always the case. The company still strives to limit freedom of choice for developers and consumers alike, as seen by the case brought forth by Aptoide as early as 2014. The case asserted that Google was providing generally misleading warnings and hurdles regarding the app, severely shrinking their user base. Google was later slapped with a $5 billion fine by the European Commission in 2018 after a multi-year investigation.
Google in our daily lives
The Google monopoly is gaining more media attention as time goes on, however few know how far it truly extends. While it may seem that the problem lies with developers or other heads of the tech companies, Googles monopolistic tendencies trickle down to all those who use it.
Google is winning, and whether we know it or not, we are the ones paying the price.