Great piece in Wired by Fred Vogelstein asking “Why Is Obama’s Top Antitrust Cop Gunning for Google?” It paints a pretty good picture of the coming antitrust ordeal that Google is likely to be subjected to by the Obama Administration. And, as usual, I couldn’t agree more with the skepticism that Eric Goldman of Santa Clara University Law School articulates when he notes: “The problem for antitrust in high tech is that the environment changes so rapidly. Someone who looks strong today won’t necessarily be strong tomorrow.” More importantly, as Vogelstein’s article notes, we’ve been down this path before with less than stellar results when you look at the IBM investigation in the 70s and the Microsoft case from the 90s (a fiasco that is still going on today):
After the government initiated its case against IBM, the company spent two decades scrupulously avoiding even the appearance of impropriety. By the time the suit was dropped in the early 1980s, company lawyers were weighing in on practically every meeting and scrutinizing every innovation, guarding against anything that could be seen as anticompetitive behavior. A decade later, innovation at Big Blue had all but ceased, and it had no choice but to shrink its mainframe business. (It has since reinvented itself as a services company.)
Microsoft took the opposite approach. Gates and company were defiant, to the point of stonewalling regulators and refusing to take the charges seriously. “Once we accept even self-imposed regulation, the culture of the company will change in bad ways,” one former Microsoft executive told Wired at the time. “It would crush our competitive spirit.” Gates put it even more directly: “The minute we start worrying too much about antitrust, we become IBM.” Microsoft’s hostility to the very idea of regulation resulted in several avoidable missteps—including remarkably antagonistic deposition testimony from Gates—that ultimately helped the DOJ rally support for its ongoing antitrust suit against the company. Although Microsoft ultimately settled, the public beating appears to have taken a toll on the company, which has been unable to maintain its reputation for innovation and industry leadership.
Read the whole article for all the gory details. This is going to be the biggest antitrust case of all-time once it is finally launched and I feel confident predicting that it will make many lawyers and consultants very, very rich while doing absolutely nothing to help consumer welfare. But perhaps those DOJ lawyers can at least get Google to lower the prices for all those services they offer. Oh, wait, they’re all free. But don’t worry, I’m sure Beltway bureaucrats will do a great job of running something as complex as search algorithms and online advertising markets. Right.