Hold big tech firms accountable

Shortly after the United States (US) justice department announced it was suing Google for operating an “illegal monopoly” through its search services, a senior Google official sought to make a simple point in a blogpost. People use Google because they choose to, not because they are forced to or cannot find alternatives. The reality, however, is more complicated and explains Google’s dizzying growth over the last two decades, which began with one of the simplest, but a defining motto — don’t be evil. This journey also offers cautionary notes to countries such as India, which hope to hold big tech firms accountable.

Google’s early successes stem from the sheer superiority of its first product: The search. Larry Page and Sergey Brin created computer algorithms that would go on to upend how the internet was mapped. Its accuracy and speed triggered an organic shift of users from its rivals. Over time, the service turned into the gatekeeper of the internet. As the user trajectory shot up, so did the revenues. Search was free, the money came from the ads that were now being shown to an ever-increasing number of visitors. Soon, the company built the financial muscle to launch a host of promising internet-based services, or acquire those that had beaten it. It now has its own services for how people watch videos, access news, book flights and seek out restaurants. The US justice department says this journey was helped by a “series of exclusionary” deals that control how users “access search engines, and thus the internet”. In particular, they pointed to how Google leveraged its Android mobile operating system and struck deals with cellphone makers. Tellingly, in 2018, the company dropped “don’t be evil” from its corporate code of conduct.

Google’s rise now has implications not only for business, but also politics and society — which makes the antitrust conversation relevant for all countries, including India. This conversation also needs to extend to other digital companies, such as Facebook, the other gatekeeper of information online. India needs to draw on the work that led to the American lawsuit, and take into account conversations in the European Union, where courts and policymakers have dealt some of the strongest blows to big tech’s propensity to cartelise. Remember, these companies shape how you live, think, consume, vote, read, work and holiday. Forcing them to be accountable is essential.

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