THE INTERNET HAS become so important to modern life that it’s hard to imagine it working much differently from the way it does. If you want to know something, you “Google it,” for free, presumably knowing you’ll be served targeted advertising. But today’s online world isn’t only a product of technological progress; it’s also the result of any number of legal cases and policy decisions that could easily have gone another way.
“Microsoft could have killed Google in the cradle,” says prominent Silicon Valley antitrust lawyer Gary Reback. Back in the 1990s, Reback spent years helping to convince the Justice Department to file charges against Microsoft, which was then using its dominance of the personal-computer software market to give Internet Explorer an advantage over other browsers. If not for the scrutiny Microsoft faced in antitrust cases in both the United States and Europe, Reback says — if the government hadn’t stepped in to stop the company from disadvantaging competitors — Google might never have become popular enough to be a verb.
Or, for that matter, the subject of its own antitrust controversy. Google has grown so fast, partly by buying more than 200 companies, that it has a level of power that policymakers and scholars are only now starting to understand. Over the last few years, Google has been accused of disadvantaging its own competition by using its search engine to steer users toward its other businesses — to its own local listings instead of Yelp’s, for example. Last June, the European Commission fined the company $2.7 billion for this. Google is appealing the decision.