/ 17 December 2023

Big tech stumbles in Google’s Epic defeat

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Photo Illustration by Rafael Henrique/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images

Google’s defeat against Fortnite-maker Epic Games in court could be an important blow against big tech’s decades of supremacy on antitrust matters in the US.

With lawmaking gridlocked and pro-business judges dominant in federal courts, US tech giants have survived unscathed for years against accusations of wielding illegal monopoly power.

While Europe, Britain, India and others enforce regulations that at least try to keep big tech in check, Google, Apple, Meta and Amazon have yet to suffer a significant setback on their home turf.

But a jury of nine on Monday possibly changed that equation, setting an important precedent.

“Big tech is not above the law. This loss isn’t just the first antitrust failure for Google, it’s the first antitrust loss for any big tech firm,” said Matt Stoller, director of research at the American Economic Liberties Project.

The jury on Monday decided that Epic Games was slighted by Google’s refusal to let outside apps take payments on Android phones, other than through its app store.

After a three-year battle, Epic Games was vindicated after seeming to be on the back foot when a different judge largely decided against the video game maker in a case involving Apple.

But Epic’s chief executive, Tim Sweeney, refused to back down and when other developers settled with Google, he stuck to his guns, repeating his demand that Google open up Android smartphones to other modes of payment, and without charging a hefty commission.

John Lopatka, from Penn State University’ law school, said it was predictable that juries side with plaintiffs in monopoly cases “where the defendant will be painted as a greedy behemoth.”

Apple’s case, decided by a judge, avoided that fate — but not so for Google.

Now two questions remain: what will happen on Google’s appeal, and how will the judge order Google to fulfil the jury’s decision?

This litigation “has some distance to go before we know the final resolution,” warned Lopatka. But the remedy could very likely have a huge impact, with Apple’s behaviour regarding its own app store potentially affected.

Big tech’s longtime critics point to Google’s other major case, where the US department of justice is suing Google over its online search.

In both cases, Apple looms large — and many wonder whether the iPhone maker will be able to avoid being dragged back to court.

“Apple is next over the barrel,” said Luther Lowe, head of public policy at Y Combinator, the startup hub.

Court documents showed in both cases that Google made huge payments to smartphone makers to ensure that its products kept a predominant place on devices, crushing rivals before they can emerge.

“Google and Apple both treat developers as adversaries,” Sweeney told The Verge. “We’re going to do absolutely everything we can, as quickly as we can, to start changing the world,” he added. — AFP