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The Attention Economy Goes to Court

How does human attention work, and who should have the right to capture it, direct it, and harvest it for the sake of profit or future investments in value-generating innovations? The Google antitrust trial has brought such questions to the fore, showing that they are both long overdue and a long way from being answered.

BERKELEY – The Google antitrust trial has finally shown just how much the world’s dominant search engine is willing – and able – to pay to be the default on smartphones and other devices: $26 billion in 2021 alone, $18 billion of which went to another tech giant, Apple. While Google has long tried to guard this number, it was always known to be large – and so it is.

What is Google paying for? When you set up a new iPhone, Apple could prompt you on which search engine to use as the default in its Safari web browser. But it doesn’t; it simply selects Google automatically. Of course, one can go into “Settings” and change the default with a few taps of the screen (other options include Yahoo, Bing, DuckDuckGo, and Ecosia). But almost nobody will bother with that. So, Google transfers billions of dollars to Apple every year to minimize the chances that iPhone search-engine advertising revenue will flow to any company other than Google.

There are several different positions one could take on this issue. You could say that Google is the malefactor. But you also could say that Apple is. After all, instead of requiring users to choose, it gives Google an unfair advantage in exchange for a hefty fee. Perhaps Google is really the victim. Since it has the best search engine, companies that want to maximize the value for their customers ought to choose it anyway. But rather than making Google the default for free, Apple is extorting it with the threat of selling that status to a higher bidder. It is arguably leveraging its single-buyer power to restrain trade and distort competition.