It's Time to Loosen Google's Iron Grip on Search | Opinion

Google's unique brand of surveillance capitalism may soon be on the chopping block.

Perhaps its fate will not be so extreme, but Google is in the Department of Justice's crosshairs, and one can only speculate what exactly the DOJ is aiming for. Regardless, the impending antitrust case must be keeping Google executives up at night. Not only is its $34 billion digital advertising business in question, but also its dominance in search. Whichever way this case goes, it's significant as a reminder that Google doesn't have to rule search, as well as an invitation to imagine and hope for a future where it doesn't.

As we look towards Google's future, it's instructive to look at the recent past. Google has amassed over 90 percent of the global search market and has used its enormous financial clout to absolutely devour the digital landscape over the last two decades. It has also captured 65 percent of the global browser market, and nearly 75 percent of the global mobile OS market, with its search naturally set as the default.

This trifecta pulls billions of the world's citizens deep into a Google ecosystem that pairs a vast web of tracking technologies with meticulously engineered products designed to harvest and monetize troves of user data while leaving little room for viable alternatives.

For too long, Google has operated what amounts to a monopoly with very little pushback from the U.S. government. Europe, on the other hand, is no stranger to antitrust lawsuits and has fined Google a handful of times for billions of euros. The U.S. is finally, and rightfully, following suit.

Logo with signage in front of Building 44, which houses employees working on the Android mobile phone operating system, at the Googleplex, headquarters of Google Inc in the Silicon Valley town of Mountain View, California, April 7, 2017. Smith Collection/Gado/Getty

In the case of search, the Department of Justice is especially long overdue in holding Google in check. Google's dominance in search is a special case that demands urgent attention because, at its core, it creates an insidious digital environment that hurts consumers by placing Google's profitability above all else. By positioning itself as a ubiquitous utility that is set by default in Chrome and Android, Google can invisibly harvest mountains of data from billions of people who are unaware that they have any other choice.

This de facto monopoly has consequences. Google's market dominance stymies innovation in privacy-first search and browser technologies and prevents consumers from having the freedom to use the web on their own terms. You need look no further than our previous parent company, Cliqz, whose privacy-focused browser and search was shut down in large part because Google's grip on the industry is iron clad.

The unequivocal harm Google's dominance does to consumers can be illustrated by the company's deal with Apple. Recent Goldman Sachs analysts estimated that Google pays Apple $9 billion a year to be the default search engine for Safari. That is a hefty price tag to ensure Safari's millions of users are defaulted to Google search. This not only hurts Safari's users by herding them through Google's ad machine, but it also puts would-be competitors at an unscalable disadvantage by effectively locking them out of one the world's biggest Chrome alternatives.

Should the DOJ lawsuit be successful in forcing Google to share more of the market, the internet as we know it could change forever, and for the better. It could open the door for more private browsing options and democratize the internet, giving consumers a say in how they trade value for the online services they use, either by providing data, seeing ads or paying out of pocket.

We live in a reality where using the internet is an absolute necessity to do our jobs, stay in touch with family and stay informed. This reliance means we cannot allow one big tech corporation to have complete control over this critical resource. If Google were forced to share more of the search market, the millions of consumers advocating for more privacy would have more options, which could transform not just search but the entire tech industry.

While we're a smaller company, Ghostery is committed to providing the world an alternative to Google that empowers users to search and browse the web on their own terms with complete control of their privacy. We hope the DOJ's antitrust efforts creates space for us to do precisely that.

Jeremy Tillman is the president of Ghostery.

The views expressed in this article are the writer's own.