With the current antitrust case brought by European regulators against Google moving forward, there is renewed interest among investors in learning about the laws that control anticompetitive practices. In the most general sense, antitrust laws are intended to prevent any one company or group of companies from unfairly controlling a market. In recent years, antitrust laws have also been increasingly used to correct perceived market inefficiencies. The vagueness of this regulatory mission is one of the primary sources of angst for business leaders regarding these laws, as it can be challenging to plan for future growth in an uncertain regulatory environment.
What is antitrust law?
The vagueness of antitrust laws is what makes them so tricky to understand. At a gut level, most people feel that it’s wrong to leverage one’s own position to extract disproportionate amounts of wealth from the system by discouraging competition. In practice, however, it can be hard to state clearly when a company has begun to operate in bad faith against the public good and the market.
In the late 1800s, several companies in the United States founded trusts that acted as what we would today call holding companies. These trusts owned shares from a number of corporations in order to skirt the letter of laws established in the 1600s by the English to prevent monopolies from being formed. The goal was to create the appearance of multiple corporations operating within an industry while in fact centralizing control within a single board of trustees.
From the 1880s to the 1930s, American legislators passed a series of laws aimed at breaking up these trusts, giving rise to the term “antitrust” that we use today to describe a whole host of activities that extend beyond the original model. With the emergence of American financial power in the aftermath of World War II, the American version of antitrust became the global standard. Ultimately, the European Union adopted its own version of these laws in its early decades.
In the modern view of regulators, there are three primary concerns about the power of corporations to control a market. There is market allocation, where companies carve up different territories and decide not to compete with each other. Regulators also worry about bid rigging, where companies agree not to bid contracts lower. Finally, there is price fixing, where companies agree to maintain artificially high prices for goods sold to the public.
The case against Google
On April 15, regulators from the European Union made official claims that Google is using its search engine to direct customers to its own products and services. The E.U. had previously made unsuccessful attempts to reach an agreement with Google regarding its search operations in Europe. The company believed that it had reached an agreement with the E.U. in February and that the matter was largely behind them.
Google controls about 92-percent of the market share for search queries in Europe, meeting almost any accepted standard for a monopoly. The main thrust of the complaint is that Google uses its search engine to redirect people who are looking for specific products and services to its own shopping site. Google, however, contends that it treats all search results equally and is only serving consumers search results that are considered most appropriate by its algorithm to their queries.