Google: The Next Evil Empire?

Among many of the tech cognoscenti, Microsoft has been portrayed much like the evil Galactic Empire in Star Wars: a tyrannical regime bent on conquering the universe for its own nefarious ends.

Google, on the other hand, has been seen as having the spirit of a can-do band of rebels, relying on its guile and innate goodness to fight the evil empire.

My, how times have changed.

Today, Google resembles no company so much as it does Microsoft in its global ambitions, its clear-eyed focus on the bottom line and -- for the first time -- a host of critics who fear that the company's reach has grown too long, its grip on the market too strong.

In fact, fears about Google's market power have grown so markedly that sometime in the next four years, you may well see an antitrust suit launched against Google by the U.S. Department of Justice to rein in the power of the Silicon Valley search king.

To understand why Google may be the target of an antitrust suit, listen to Christine Varney, nominated by President Barack Obama to be assistant attorney general for antitrust at the Justice Department -- in other words, the nation's next antitrust czar.

On June 19, 2008, well before the election, Varney participated in a panel discussion sponsored by the American Antitrust Institute. According to the Bloomberg news service, she warned that Google, not Microsoft, presents the greatest antitrust danger in the 21st century.

"For me, Microsoft is so last century. They are not the problem," she said, adding that our economy will "continually see a problem -- potentially with Google," because it "has acquired a monopoly in Internet online advertising."

Varney warned that Google may present other dangers as well, particularly in cloud computing. The company is "quickly gathering market power in what I would call an online computing environment in the clouds," she said.

Lest anyone miss her point about Google, Varney added, "When all our enterprises move to computing in the clouds and there is a single firm that is offering a comprehensive solution, you are going to see the same repeat of Microsoft."

To drive home her point, she said that in the same way that companies complained about Microsoft's domination in the days before the antitrust suit against it, "there will be companies that will begin to allege that Google is discriminating" against them by "not allowing their products to interoperate with Google's products."

This is not idle talk. Varney has long experience with antitrust suits and technology. In fact, she was a lobbyist for Netscape and pushed President Clinton's Justice Department to sue Microsoft for violations of antitrust laws.

Before that, she had been a member of the Federal Trade Commission under Clinton. While there, she was a vocal proponent of online privacy, calling for industry privacy standards and for the government to increase its enforcement of privacy laws. Given that many people fear that Google has amassed far too much private information about Internet users, this isn't good news for the company.

There's no guarantee that there will be a Google antitrust suit, of course. Varney made her statements before she was nominated to be the country's antitrust chief. She may well change her mind once she starts her new job.

On the other hand, if I were a Google executive, there's one place where I'd be hiring instead of cutting back: the legal department.

Preston Gralla is a contributing editor to and the author of more than 35 books, including How the Internet Works (Que, 2006).

Copyright © 2009 IDG Communications, Inc.

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