Google is once again in the US government’s antitrust cross hairs. In 2012, it was investigated by the Federal Trade Commission; now, a Department of Justice inquiry is expected, and a House investigation has been announced. The company has attracted hostility from the left (progressive presidential candidate Elizabeth Warren wants to break it up) and the right (President Donald Trump has accused it of bias). Yet users who choose Google every day should ask: Which would they be better off without—Google or antitrust?
Other companies that shape our online world are being targeted too, and the precise contours of the new investigation are not yet clear. But Google’s preeminence in search and its role in online advertising may be examined. Google’s treatment of businesses that compete with it may draw particular attention. Antitrust enforcers have even been urged to look at privacy issues.
While privacy would be an unconventional focus for an antitrust case, the prospect of including it—or any other value not usually associated with antitrust—should remind us of the fundamental moral viewpoint of antitrust law. That perspective holds that the government is entitled to define the goals of economic activity and that, except when officials decide otherwise, the goal the government has decreed is service to the consumer. It sees businessmen as decentralized planners granted limited autonomy by a government wise enough to realize that, within the right structure, they can serve the consumer more efficiently than central planners could.
From that perspective, it’s easy to see why those who think Google has a left-wing bias might want to impose some sort of neutrality (whether through existing antitrust laws or through new laws embodying the same morality) and make it serve right-wing voices better. It’s easy to see why others might be tempted by Warren’s argument that if Google Search were a separate, regulated company, it would serve the current Google’s competitors better.
But what that perspective rejects is your right to live your life for your own sake. By saying that the government is entitled to set the goals of economic life—that is, of your productive work and everyone else’s—it says that you do not have the right to set the goals of your own effort. You do not have the right to do your work your way because it sustains your life and realizes your vision. Instead, you have permission to do work that suits the vision of the people in charge.
The individuals who created and run Google have created extraordinary values that we now take for granted. Their products—the search engine, Google Maps, Gmail, Chrome, and so on—are pervasive in our lives because we keep choosing them. They, our benefactors, deserve to be thanked. If they disappoint us, they may deserve to lose our business. But they do not deserve to be forced to serve any goals other than those they choose.
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