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Opinion: Is the recent $2.7 billion antitrust fine on Google fair?

We are all secretly gleeful when rich corporations are made to cough up $$$. But in this case the story is a little different.

The European Union recently fined Google 2.7 billion USD in an antitrust lawsuit. Why? Because when you search for a product, Google displays ads on top from its own shopping comparison service. Of course, those are affiliate links to other sites (such as Amazon and Flipkart in India) that actually sell the products, and it clearly displays it as “Sponsored” content, but the EU deemed it unfair to other comparison sites.

Now, I’m not usually one to side with big companies over anything, because like everyone else, I too secretly love it when the rich corporation gets a dent in its fat wallet. However, I find myself on Google’s side in this case.

The problem with the EU’s argument is that whilst it looks to be fair to the little guy, it’s not really fair to the littlest guy – us consumers.

The EU is known to be a little trigger happy when it comes to such things. They fined Microsoft twice – once for bundling Windows Media Player in Windows, and again for bundling Internet Explorer in Windows. The Microsoft battle still rages in court. The EU also fined Intel 1.45 billion USD in 2009 for giving additional rebates to PC companies like Acer, Dell, HP, etc., if they used Intel chips in more than 95% of their sales. That case is still in appeal, and is actually looking good for Intel (supposedly). Qualcomm faces a similar charge for reportedly undercutting a smaller competitor with a specific (unnamed) phone manufacturer. Apple has been awarded a whopping tax evasion fine of 13 billion Euros (about 14.75 billion USD) for escaping paying tax in Ireland… and here I thought the US was the lawsuit capital of the world!

European parliament
The European Parliament

Coming back to Google, they will of course challenge this verdict as all the other companies have done before them. Has anyone ever paid the EU any money? With lawsuits, however, it isn’t just the individual case that matters, but more so the precedent it sets. After delivering a verdict against Microsoft in 2004 for Windows Media Player, the EU has no choice but to do the same with all the others. In fact, it’s already investigating and coming up with another case against Google for Android. Why? Because all Android devices come with Maps, Chrome, YouTube, Gmail, etc. bundled. Since there are companies making alternative apps for all of those things (regardless of how good or bad they are), the same antitrust rules that applied to Windows in 2004 will apply to Android now.

Google campus
Google campus at Mountain View, California

Given that every tiny feature of everything tech has many companies competing, does this mean customers in the EU will be forced to build their own tech from scratch soon? We (team digit) were discussing this and someone said, “GUIs for desktops and launchers for mobiles are also made by several companies… will we all get command-line-only PCs and sans-launcher mobiles soon?”
We don’t live in the EU, so this doesn’t affect us at all, yet. The problem with the EU is that all this fines business seems to be political in nature. The problem is, bad ideas seem to spread very quickly these days, especially amongst politicians, and we don’t want our politicians getting any ideas.

As a consumer, I’m stuck between a rock and a hard place. A monopoly is bad for me, because it means less choice, and perhaps higher prices. However, Google doesn’t charge me anything for search, and Android is open source. What does it do for innovation if we cripple big tech companies? With more interconnectedness of OSes and apps across all platforms, I wonder if it’s even possible to really strip an OS of all the features that others make apps for… more importantly, is it even worth it to do so?

I’m used to ignoring ads on Google search and although I personally might even prefer a crippled Android device that I can set up from scratch, most smartphone users will not like that. If they do it to Google, they will have to do it to Apple too. Can you imagine Apple buyers (who supposedly love the ease of use aspect of their devices), having to download and setup everything from scratch? No Safari, no Apple Maps (ok maybe that’s a good thing), no apps whatsoever, just an App store icon on the home screen?

This piece was originally supposed to be titled “Texit”, which was an attempt to conflate technology and exit (like Brexit; I know, I know, it’s a pathetic attempt). Even if the big technology companies cannot leave, it sure as heck seems like common sense is exiting Europe!

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Robert Sovereign-Smith