The recently confirmed DOJ probe of Alphabet isn't the first time it's tussled with antitrust regulators -- but for a variety of reasons, it could be a much different story this time.
Back in 2011, the FTC launched an investigation into whether Google unfairly stifled competition by, among other practices, demoting the search results of competitors verticals like local business listings and shopping sites. In a subsequent settlement, Google agreed to a few tweaks to its business model -- but on the search issue, the matter was closed without any action.
"Google had vanished all of our sites to page 8 of the search results, which knocked out 80% of our traffic," said Colin Pape, an entrepreneur who ran a shopping site called ShopCity.com and participated in the 2011 investigation. "There are thousands and thousands of private companies that experience something similar."
Since that time, Alphabet's (GOOGL - Get Report) dominance of the U.S. search market has only grown -- roughly 90% of U.S. search queries go through Google today -- and its business has evolved in many other ways, too. It's deepened its reach into users' lives in a variety of ways: Its Android operating system, its position as the default browser on Chrome and Apple's (AAPL - Get Report) Safari, and widely-used products like Gmail, G Suite, Maps and more. It's now nearly impossible for many users to disentangle from Google, or for smaller competitors to make meaningful inroads in any of those verticals, Pape said.
"Google has upped the ante since [the 2013 settlement], and bundled their products even tighter: They have the No. 1 browser, the No. 1 email, No. 1 mapping ... there are just so many integral products and so many opportunities for them to control the flow of information," added Pape, who has since founded a private search engine called Presearch with more than 1 million users.
At a recent House Judiciary Committee hearing on antitrust concerns, Google's director of economic policy Adam Cohen made the case that competition is "just a click away," citing examples of specialized search sites like Travelocity for travel bookings and Amazon (AMZN - Get Report) for product searches.
It's worth noting that in its investor call last week, Google CEO Sundar Pichai specifically called out Google Travel, a new portal for booking travel arrangements, and a universal shopping cart for buying products across various sites -- suggesting that even in verticals where competition exists, Alphabet doesn't intend to passively allow those competitors to flourish.
What precise behavior will be brought to bear in an Alphabet antitrust probe remains to be seen. What is clear, however, is that antitrust investigations are a lengthy process.
Kevin Arquit, a partner at Kasowitz Benson Torres who previously led the FTC's Bureau of Competition, explained that antitrust investigations can be particularly challenging when the subjects are high tech firms accustomed to speedy innovation.
"By the time you get to the issue that was challenged, the world has moved on," he said, pointing out that the antitrust investigation and case challenging Microsoft in the 1990s took roughly 10 years start to finish.
No one seems to expect that an investigation of Alphabet -- or the other "dominant online platforms" targeted in the DOJ's probe, which include Amazon, Facebook (FB - Get Report) and Apple -- would take quite that long. Needham analyst Laura Martin forecast in a recent note that in Alphabet's case, an antitrust case would take roughly three years to conclude, and add costs and margin pressures for up to four years. But looking for anticompetitive conduct in instances where consumers make a choice to use a certain platform is an uphill battle.
Regulators tend to look for artificial barriers to entry that freeze out competitors, but don't necessarily make a company's own product better, Arquit explained. For example, the U.S. successfully argued that Microsoft's (MSFT - Get Report) actions constituted unlawful monopolization when it restricted the ability to uninstall Internet Explorer in favor of competitors like Netscape.
"They look to see what nascent competing technologies there are out there, and they look at the dominant firm's conduct and ask: Is the practice that's being challenged a practice the company has any reason to engage in, other than to keep out competition?"
Arquit echoed many other observers in speculating that a forced breakup of the tech giants is unlikely. But no matter what lies ahead in terms of formal outcomes, government investigations aren't free of consequence. Asked if antitrust probes have a chilling effect within organizations, he said it's "inevitable" that investigations will affect some form of conduct, whether it's acquisitions, product choices or otherwise.
"The existence of the investigation is going to be a damper on decisions companies would otherwise make, good or bad," he said.
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