Opinion | The Google Antitrust Trial Is Really About the Future of A.I.

Or consider IBM’s monopoly on mainframe computing, which was challenged by private and public antitrust suits in the 1960s and ’70s. At the time, a chief concern was the use of “vaporware” tactics in the mainframe market, which affected a now-long-dead company called the Control Data Corporation. But what matters today is that IBM, out of fear that it would be broken up, unbundled its software from its hardware, which created a market for software sold as a separate product — spawning, over time, what is now a multi-trillion-dollar industry. The suit also weakened IBM at the very time that personal computers were emerging, benefiting tiny upstarts like Apple and Microsoft.

As this history suggests, it’s unlikely that we know exactly what new forms of computing a verdict against Google would make room for. The path of technological evolution is not predictable. But we do know that monopolies tend to stifle innovation and keep too much for themselves, and that forcing a monopolist to back off yields fruit.

The story of Google’s own creation is another good example. Google began as a small start-up with a great product, but it was also a beneficiary of federal government intervention. Google began its operations reliant on Microsoft’s Internet Explorer browser, which had a roughly 95 percent market share in the early 2000s. And Microsoft was running its own search engine on Internet Explorer, then called MSN Search (later renamed Bing). Fortunately for Google, Microsoft had just been put through the wringer by the Justice Department, whose antitrust lawsuit nearly led to a breakup of the company. In the end, Google beat Bing in part because it had a better product — but also because it wasn’t facing the nasty Microsoft of the 1990s, but rather a weakened and chastened Microsoft operating under federal oversight.

Today Google is both interested in and threatened by the large language model technology of companies like OpenAI, which developed ChatGPT. Google has spent many billions of dollars on A.I. research, including developing its own chatbot, Bard, and recently rushed to incorporate dozens of A.I. features into its products. But as a giant, entrenched company, Google has the disadvantage of needing to protect its existing revenue streams and keep its investors, customers and advertisers happy. It has a strong incentive to make sure that A.I. doesn’t turn into something that disrupts or destroys its current business.

At the trial in Washington last week, the prosecution (which includes the federal as well as state governments) made clear that Google leveraged its money and power over the past decade to stifle competition, paying companies like Apple and Samsung billions of dollars to make Google the default search setting for their phones. Apple also agreed to stay out of Google’s business: handling search queries.