Justice  /  Comparison

Microsoft, Google and Antitrust: Similar Legal Theories in a Different Era

The government’s antitrust case against Google borrows heavily from the landmark lawsuit against Microsoft 25 years ago. But it lacks the same cultural impact.

The Justice Department argues in a federal antitrust suit that Google is a dominant tech company that has abused its market power to bully industry partners, protect its monopoly and thwart competition.

That has a familiar ring. As U.S. et al. v. Google goes to trial this week, the echoes of the landmark federal suit against Microsoft, a quarter-century ago, are unmistakable. In the Google case, as with Microsoft then, a tech giant is accused of using its overwhelming market power to unfairly cut competitors off from potential customers.

But on the eve of the Google trial, it seems unimaginable that the case could command the widespread attention that the Microsoft proceedings did. Microsoft in the late 1990s was a singular tech titan and its leader, Bill Gates, was a national icon.

The Microsoft trial, which began in October 1998, spanned 76 days of testimony over more than eight months. Every major news organization covered it. The New York Times reported on the proceedings daily.

It was a trial that often dealt with cerebral concepts like “network effects” and “switching costs.” Yet The Times gave it the kind of day-to-day coverage ordinarily reserved for very few courtroom dramas over the years, like the O.J. Simpson trial and the Lindbergh kidnapping trial.

Many days, there were spin sessions on the courthouse steps. Microsoft representatives would say the government had presented isolated snippets of text, taken out of context, certainly not proof of anti-competitive conduct. Lawyers for the Justice Department and states who joined the lawsuit would mostly say the damning testimony spoke for itself.

Microsoft was found by a federal judge to have repeatedly violated the nation’s antitrust laws. An appeals court upheld most of that decision but was skeptical of the government’s preferred remedy — breaking up the company.

In its lawsuit against Google, the Justice Department points to the Microsoft case and that company’s tactics in the 1990s. “Google deploys the same playbook,” the government declares, by illegally wielding its might in online search much as Microsoft did with its personal computer operating system, Windows.

But Kent Walker, Google’s president of global affairs, said there were big differences between the Microsoft of the dot-com boom and today’s Google. Back then, Mr. Walker was deputy general counsel of Netscape, the commercial pioneer of internet browsing software, which was the main target of Microsoft’s campaign to hobble competition.