Reining in Google

| Updated on October 23, 2020

The US antitrust suit highlights need for independent digital regulator in India

The antitrust lawsuit filed by the US Department of Justice against Google marks a significant step towards curbing the growing monopolistic power of the Internet behemoth. Although the lawsuit focuses only on specific deals done by Google with phone makers and telecom operators to capture significant market share for its search engine business, the outcome of this case could open investigations into other questionable practices related to its Android app store and other software platforms. With a market cap of nearly $1 trillion, revenues of $160 billion, and a 90 per cent market share in the search business, Google is one of the largest companies the world has ever seen. The nature of its online products and services allows Google to wield tremendous power over five billion people with Internet access around the world.

From influencing consumer shopping behaviour to determining the political destiny of countries around the world, Google arguably exercises more influence over how we live than any government today. This dominance enables Google to do a lot of things that are not just anti-competitive, but also anti-consumer. Google recently announced that it would make app developers on the Google Play Store platform use its in-app payment system instead of independent payment systems. This meant developers would have to use Google’s billing system, which takes a 30 per cent fee for every transaction. Although this decision has been withheld after protests from developers, it reveals Google’s inclination to misuse its market dominance. Google unabashedly tracks users’ shopping habits, video-watching preferences, the content of e-mail conversations, places travelled, food eating habits among other things. This could be a major problem in countries like India, where personal data protection and privacy laws are virtually non-existent.

Twitter, Facebook and Google exert immense influence on the social, economic and political landscape of a country. Facebook, for example, has been accused of looking the other way when its platform was being allegedly misused to influence democratic processes in the US. The social media platform recently set up an oversight board in a bid to showcase that it can self-regulate. However, a big drawback of this board is that it is not designed to take quick decisions. Platforms like Google or Facebook cannot be trusted to do its own policing. Neither can this task be left to governments, as it could become a potent weapon in the hands of any ruling regime to change the course of elections or target political rivals. Perhaps, it is time to set up an independent regulatory oversight of Internet platforms. Proceedings initiated against Google in the US should pave the way for similar scrutiny in India, too.

Published on October 23, 2020

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