What The AI Arms Race Means For Google’s Antitrust Woes

The search giant has been under a mountain of regulatory scrutiny for years. The battle for AI supremacy could shake things up once again.

That Google was seemingly caught off guard in the AI arms race has inspired all manner of scrambling inside the company. CEO Sundar Pichai issued new mandates for employees to test AI services, policies were “recalibrated” to release products faster, and checked-out founders suddenly began tinkering with code. Microsoft’s recent release of a new version of its Bing search engine enhanced by OpenAI’s chatbot technology has jolted Google into action. Last week, the company rushed to debut its own chatbot, Bard, in an apparent attempt to front-run its Redmond rival. But amid the all-hands AI fire drill in Mountain View, there may be a whiff of regulatory relief. For the first time in decades, Google seems potentially at risk of losing at least some of its grip on search, a market it has repeatedly been accused of monopolizing.

As Google wades into the fight, the company faces new questions about how artificial intelligence might affect the competitive landscape, according to antitrust experts and rivals interviewed by Forbes. Some say it will simply evolve into another iteration of Google’s market dominance where it continues to allegedly favor its own products over those of competitors. Others say a renewed rivalry with a suddenly resurgent old foe could help mitigate antitrust pressures that have long plagued it.

“The lament about monopolists is that they don’t feel urgency” to upend their operations and react to competitors, William Kovacic, a former FTC commissioner, told Forbes. “Google will point to this and say, ‘Where is that unassailable dominance again? The industry is moving as we speak.’”

Google declined to comment for this story.

The intensified race in AI comes amid increased regulatory scrutiny in Washington, DC. During the State of the Union address last week, President Joe Biden called for Congress to “strengthen antitrust enforcement” against big tech companies. Since 2021, both the House and Senate have cited Google when introducing bipartisan legislation aimed at reigning in tech giants from tactics like “self-preferencing” their own products over rivals or using their position as app store gatekeepers to cripple new entrants.

“Google will point to this and say, ‘Where is that unassailable dominance again?’”

William Kovacic, former FTC commissioner

With its more than $280 billion in annual revenue and 91% of global market share in web search, Google has been a key focus of the antitrust spotlight through multiple administrations. In 2020, after years of threats and calls to corral the company’s power, the DOJ sued Google over its search business, the first major antitrust suit the U.S. had brought against a tech company since the 1990s, when the DOJ and a collection of states accused Microsoft of a monopoly in the PC software market. With search as Google’s cornerstone, regulators have been scrutinizing how each aspect of it affects competitors. The department’s latest complaint ratchets up the stakes by calling for a breakup of Google’s ad business, after alleging the company tipped the scales in its favor by forcing marketers and publishers to use Google’s in-house ad tech. Google has also been sued by state attorneys general over its ad auctions and alleged self-preferencing.

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All these allegations are rooted in the idea that Google has used its dominance to stifle competition. But given the company’s recent stumbles in AI search, Google—a company that’s been accused of illegally bundling its services together and swallowing up emergent rivals—might attempt to make the case that perhaps all is well in the free market.

That won’t be easy. Google is one of the most prominent AI leaders in the industry and pioneered the very technology that has enabled large language models like OpenAI’s ChatGPT and its ilk. Google has so thoroughly dominated search in the past, though, that Bard, only in limited release for now, is entering the search market with a significant advantage.

“Competition and choice are really, really important for innovation,” said Sridhar Ramaswamy, founder of the search startup Neeva, and Google’s former senior vice president of ads. “The fact that Google is facing a challenge right now doesn’t at all do anything to the fact that it’s really hard for anyone to compete in the field of search. Governments need to be laser focused on making sure that there is actual competition.”

Others think AI chatbots could exacerbate existing problems. For years, rivals and publishers have complained that Google prioritizes its own services, keeping traffic for itself instead of sending it out to the open web. Over the last decade, Google has moved from providing a list of ten blue links to being a one-stop answer shop—a key narrative in the antitrust argument that Google uses its massive market share to edge out other players. Some fear that Bard, as an AI layer on top of that already dominant search and advertising infrastructure, could entrench Google even more.

“Governments need to be laser focused on making sure that there is actual competition.”

Sridhar Ramaswamy, CEO, Neeva

Google receives criticism today for its answer boxes, or “featured snippets,” which display excerpts of websites as highlighted answers to queries, with a link below it to the original site. Some complain that the practice keeps people on Google’s homepage, instead of sending them to the source material. Early screenshots of Bard suggest it could function in the same way, though the blurb doesn’t link out to original sources.

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Because Bard and the new Bing answer search queries with such detailed replies, they sometimes obviate any need to leave the search engine. For example, Wired used Bing’s chatbot to search for best dog beds according to the reviews site Wirecutter, and the result included the site’s top picks with descriptions—citing the news outlet but leaving no incentive to visit the meter paywalled article. For Google to act similarly will too be problematic for publishers who worry about the search giant’s unilateral ability to keep people in its ecosystem.

“Old story, new tricks,” Dina Srinivasan, the antitrust scholar and author, told Forbes. “That has been a major, major problem that websites and apps have had with respect to Google and other tech companies for a long time—the misuse of their data. And so this is just a new application.”

So renewed search competition around AI may not save Google in terms of convincing a court that it no longer has monopolist market power, but it may help the company temper any severe remedies, said Kovacic. It could compel courts to show “great caution” when faced with the question of forcing a breakup of the business, thinking such an order isn’t necessary, he said.

All that said, as AI becomes more prevalent, the gap between entrenched players and newcomers will just grow wider, said Eric Goldman, a law professor at Santa Clara University and co-director of the High Tech Law Institute. In order to compete, companies will need massive amounts of training data just as table stakes. Google, which has been indexing the web for 25 years, is at a legacy advantage. “They’re going to have a head start on just about any other competitor in terms of having a better data set to work with,” he said.

“They’re going to have a head start on just about any other competitor in terms of having a better data set to work with.”

Eric Goldman, law professor, Santa Clara University

In the past, when confronted with accusations about a monopoly in search, Google waved off those claims by pointing to another tech giant. “Really, our biggest search competitor is Amazon,” former CEO Eric Schmidt said in 2014. “People don’t think of Amazon as search, but if you are looking for something to buy, you are more often than not looking for it on Amazon.”

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Now the heavyweight contender is Microsoft, itself once a target of antitrust scorn. Even CEO Satya Nadella noted the renewed sense of rivalry when he announced the new version of Bing. “Today was a day we brought some more competition to search,” He said in an interview with the Verge. “[Google] will definitely come out and show that they can dance. And I want people to know that we made them dance.” (Microsoft, however, has a lot to do to get Bing properly calibrated, as users complain of “unhinged” responses from the chatbot.)

The battle with Microsoft, while it may be helpful for Google as it tries to fend off antitrust claims, still doesn’t do much to foster competition, rivals say. You.com, a search startup, released a version of its search engine with AI chat features back in December, a month-and-a-half before Bing. “It’s a really tough space to compete in, and these large players make it harder,” CEO Richard Socher told Forbes. “We’re sort of stuck between these two 8,000-pound gorillas.”


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