“The true significance of the federal antitrust lawsuit filed against Google on Tuesday cannot be captured by any narrow debate about legal doctrine or what the case will mean for the company. This is a big case, filed during an important time, and it merits a commensurately broad understanding. The complaint marks the return of the U.S. government to a role that many of us long feared it had abandoned: disciplining the country’s largest and most powerful monopolies.
President Theodore Roosevelt best explained the role played by antitrust law after his Justice Department filed suit in 1902 against the Northern Securities Company, formed by J.P. Morgan and others. Roosevelt wrote to a friend that “the absolutely vital question” was whether “the government has the power to control the trusts.” As he had said earlier in a speech, the “immense power” of aggregated wealth “can be met only by the still greater power of the people as a whole.”
Can the power of the people prevail over the power of Google and other business giants? As in the days of Theodore Roosevelt, the power of today’s biggest private companies rivals that of the government, and they arguably have more influence over how we live.
Historically, the reaction to unfettered private power has often taken one of two forms. One is passive acceptance, in the hope that the private sector will do what is best for the public. That is unfettered capitalism. The other form is an aggressive attempt to nationalize (or at least heavily regulate) powerful companies, with the aim of converting them, in effect, into public servants. That is socialism.