10/23/2020

Google Is In Legal Trouble

12:02 minutes

building that says google on it
Credit: Shutterstock

Search engine giant Google was served an antitrust lawsuit by the Justice Department this week, which alleges the company abuses its near-monopoly status to harm consumers and competitors. This is the first such action against the company, which, over the last couple decades, has grown into one of the more powerful tech companies in history. 

Meanwhile, early data from New York City schools shows a promising picture of what back-to-school in the age of COVID means. Out of more than 16,000 randomly tested students and staff members, only 28 positive results came back—20 from staff members, and eight from students. While COVID-19 cases in K-12 schools across the country are not zero, low rates are the norm so far. 

Joining Ira to talk about these stories and other news from the week is Nsikan Akpan, a science editor at National Geographic in Washington, D.C.


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Segment Guests

Nsikan Akpan

Nsikan Akpan is Science Editor for National Geographic in Washington, D.C..

Segment Transcript

IRA FLATOW: This is Science Friday. I’m Ira Flatow. One of the world’s biggest tech giants found itself in legal trouble this week. Google was served an antitrust lawsuit by the US Justice Department. The suit argues the company has unfair business practices, like how it pays other massive tech companies to be the default search engine on other devices. So what does this all mean?

Joining me today to break down this and other news of the week is Nsikan Akpan, science editor at National Geographic in Washington. Welcome back, Nsikan.

NSIKAN AKPAN: Thanks. Thank goodness it’s Friday. How’s it going?

IRA FLATOW: Yes, it’s been a long week. Tell us what the Justice Department is saying that Google did.

NSIKAN AKPAN: So, the Justice Department and 11 states say that Google has created an illegal monopoly with its business practices surrounding its search engine. They argue that Google has stifled competition by paying billions of dollars to mobile phone manufacturers, like Apple or LG or Motorola or Samsung, to prioritize its search engine and its Chrome browser on those devices. And then, on the back end, Google pumps advertisements alongside those search results. You know, every time you search for your favorite pizza place, it’s going to come up with a suggested result.

And that comes with a huge payout. Last year, Google’s search revenue was $98 billion. And its ad revenue amounted to almost $135 billion.

IRA FLATOW: Wow. So this is a big deal.

NSIKAN AKPAN: Yeah, this is enormous. I mean, it’s not only the first anti-trust action against Google, which, I should say, is technically owned by a company called Alphabet now. But it’s also the most consequential antitrust suit against a big tech company since 1998, when the DOJ and 20 states filed charges against Microsoft. In that case, the DOJ was charging that Microsoft was providing software bundles, and by doing that, it was stifling competition. Namely, the issue was with its internet browser on its operating system. And so, this practice was deemed illegal because Microsoft had made it harder for consumers to install other browsers. I don’t know if the kids will remember Netscape.

IRA FLATOW: Oh, yeah.

NSIKAN AKPAN: On its operating platform. And so as a result, when Microsoft lost this case, they had to split the company in two. The ironic part is some people say the decision opened up competitiveness, it opened up the markets, and allowed companies like Google to ultimately thrive.

IRA FLATOW: Well, you know, it’s quite obvious that people Google everything. How is Google going to defend itself?

NSIKAN AKPAN: Yeah, Google is not happy. Kent Walker, the company’s chief legal officer, described the lawsuit as deeply flawed and said it would do nothing to help consumers. So I think– Google could claim there’s plenty of competition out there. You know, they might say, have you heard of Bing, Microsoft’s search engine? But I think others, including the DOJ, could say, well, have you heard of Bing? In their suit, the Justice Department presented data that showed that Google has had an 80% to 90% market share in the search engine industry since 2009.

And I think Google could also say, our service is free. But having a free service doesn’t exclude you from antitrust regulation, which was actually the case with Microsoft.

IRA FLATOW: Let’s quickly move, before we go on to another topic in the legal world. And that was a development in the Purdue Pharma opioid epidemic case this week. Tell us what happened there.

NSIKAN AKPAN: Right. OxyContin maker, Purdue Pharma, they’re expected to plead guilty to three criminal charges for its role in the opioid crisis. And then the charges include a conspiracy to defraud the United States, and also, violating federal anti-kickback laws.

But I think that the bigger news from this settlement is that Perdue is going to pay out about $8.3 billion in damages. You might call them damages. And I think some people are saying that that price point, that settlement, is a little bit low. The drug maker was a primary source of opioids during the crisis, and the overdose crisis led to nearly half a million deaths. So I think there’s a real question on whether or not that settlement is enough to help all of those grieving families.

IRA FLATOW: Yeah, a lot of issues there. We’ll get into more later when we have more time. Let’s move quickly to the presidential debate, the last one. We did get some science talk there. Did we learn anything new, though, about the development, for example, of the coronavirus vaccine?

NSIKAN AKPAN: Yes. It is fascinating. President Trump last night said that there could be an approval within weeks. But there was actually a really big meeting yesterday held by the FDA and one of its advisory committees. And throughout that meeting, which lasted about eight hours, not only health regulators but medical academics, who were on the call to provide public commentary, really voiced this idea of taking their time with the vaccine approval.

Health regulators in particular have laid out really stringent criteria in terms of approving the COVID-19 vaccine. And they really don’t want to rush the process. I think the biggest thing is that they’re saying that companies must show that at least half the participants in these trials have two months of data related to their response to the vaccine. And I think that that’s going to slow things down, because– given that these trials have only been recruiting participants since the middle of the summer, and that the frontrunner candidates, Moderna, Pfizer, AstraZeneca, they require two doses that are spread over a month or two, we’re saying– we’re looking at maybe November, December, before we even have enough data for emergency use authorization.

IRA FLATOW: Let’s move on to climate change in that debate, because the president said some really weird things about the climate last night, such as windmills causing all these gases to come up out of the ground, solar is not ready. Did you get the idea that he really wasn’t talking about climate change much?

NSIKAN AKPAN: The president has tended to focus on pollution and clean air, rather than focusing on how his policies have sort of rolled back Obama-era regulations that were expanding clean energy. And then, I think when you look at Biden’s plan, his climate plan, he wants to achieve 100% clean electricity by 2035 and net zero emissions by 2050. And you know, Trump left the Paris Agreement. Biden plans to rejoin the Paris Agreement and reinstate emission rules and invest $2 trillion. Trump made the claim about windmills being potentially dangerous for birds. And I think anyone who studies birds would tell you that climate change is a much bigger risk to birds than windmill blades.

But I think, there were some really interesting things said about their positions on fossil fuels. I think– Trump tried to accuse Biden of not supporting fracking, which is not true. I think they both support fracking.

IRA FLATOW: In fact, at one point, Trump said he wants to put the vice president in a box with oil, saying he wants to get rid of oil immediately, when in fact, he’s talking about a phased rollback of oil.

NSIKAN AKPAN: Exactly. I mean, I think Biden has very moderate views when it comes to fossil fuels, especially with oil. He promised to stop the Keystone XL pipeline. But he hasn’t taken a position on the Dakota Access Pipeline. He’s in favor of ending fossil fuel subsidies. But– even last night, he said that he would try to completely end fossil fuels overall, but he didn’t really give a timeline for when that might happen. I mean, I think– with Trump, you’re going to see an expansion of fossil fuels, especially with natural gas. I think with Biden, he sees the value in using natural gas as a transition to clean energy, but he’s definitely not pulling back on fossil fuels as fast as some progressives might want him to.

IRA FLATOW: Let’s move on to COVID and kids, because there were some really interesting news. Specifically, we got testing data that showed a lower number than expected of cases in New York City schools. Out of more than 16,000 tests of kids and staff members, only 28 positive came back. Tell us what we’re learning from this data.

NSIKAN AKPAN: I think the result is expected, in a way, because we do know that COVID-19 doesn’t strike kids quite as fervently as it strikes adults. I do question some of the methods with the studies. We know that a negative test on one day doesn’t necessarily mean that you will test negative tomorrow or the day after. And so, I think to really conduct one of these studies, you would have to be conducting constant surveillance in the schools to make sure that the children aren’t catching coronavirus. Another big thing is that we know that most cases in children are asymptomatic, and that might say something about how much virus is in their bodies. So that’s another reason why screening on one day might miss a case.

We have a story that we came out with last week that shows that the virus seems to have a tendency of hiding out in children’s guts, rather than in their noses. So, depending on how they were testing kids– if you were doing a nasal swab, you might be missing cases in children versus if you were testing their stool. So I do just have, I guess, questions about how those studies were conducted.

IRA FLATOW: Yeah, so you need to have more studies and done better. There was a study out, I have just about this morning, that said that kids are carriers, more than we think they are.

NSIKAN AKPAN: Yeah, and that’s what we would expect normally from a respiratory virus like the coronavirus. I mean, kids tend to be primary what we call vectors of disease, carriers of the disease. I think, thankfully, what we’ve seen with the coronavirus is that kids are much less likely to suffer from the worst harmful impacts of COVID-19, although this brings us back to the debate.

Last night, President Trump made the claim that 99.9% of young people recover from the virus. And 99% of people overall recover from the virus. And I think what he’s referring to there is mortality. He’s referring to deaths. And that’s true. I mean, COVID-19 does only kill about 1% of the people that catch it. But, you know, we’re seeing that patients are dealing with chronic disease. Depending on which hospital you look at, we’re talking from 10% to 70% to 80% of patients that are hospitalized are dealing with symptoms months after they’ve caught the virus. And maybe we’re missing a lot of those long-term symptoms because we’re not actively screening people’s poop, people’s stool.

IRA FLATOW: Yeah. OK. We’ll be following a lot more of that, because that is the future of where we’re going, is more testing and getting kids back into school. Thank you, Nsikan.

NSIKAN AKPAN: Of course, anytime.

IRA FLATOW: Nsikan Akpan, science editor at National Geographic.

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