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Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

The Justice Department fired the starter pistol on what's likely to be a years-long legal siege of Big Tech by the U.S. government when it filed a major antitrust suit Tuesday against Google.

The big picture: Once a generation, it seems, federal regulators decide to take on a dominant tech company. Two decades ago, Microsoft was the target; two decades before that, IBM.

Yes, but: Today's fight takes place on a very different landscape. Unlike Microsoft in the '90s, Google is only one of a quintet of giant companies, including Facebook, Apple, Amazon and (still!) Microsoft — all competing across a broad landscape involving online ads, search, media, e-commerce, workplace communication, social networking, voice and AI.

Why it matters: Lawmakers, experts and critics have warned with increasing alarm over the past decade that these companies' unprecedented concentration of power threatens competition, free speech, consumer choice and user privacy. The Google suit represents the biggest U.S. effort yet to rein in that power, following significant moves by the EU.

Details: The suit by DOJ and 11 states accuses Google of using anticompetitive tactics to illegally monopolize the online search and search advertising markets, using exclusionary deals with phone makers and other tactics to lock in its search as a default.

  • The suit asks for "structural relief," which could mean an effort to break up Google in some way.

For its part, Google says it's got plenty of competition and the government has failed to make a case that its actions have harmed consumers, most of whom never pay a penny for Google's services.

Be smart: Antitrust cases can take years to resolve if the government and the accused company can't agree on a settlement, and many uncertainties hang over the case.

  • The Justice Department prosecutors were careful to keep the partisan fighting over alleged bias against conservatives by Google and other tech giants out of the picture of this suit. But a change in administration come January could still mean a change in DOJ's strategy.

The bottom line: Courts move slowly and tech moves fast. That means antitrust enforcement actions often lag the marketplace — and by the time cases conclude, they barely seem relevant.

  • For all that, in almost any timeline you can imagine 5 or 10 years hence, Google Search will still be a foundation stone of the digital world — and that, in itself, may give this lawsuit some extra gravity.

Go deeper:

Go deeper

Jan 28, 2021 - Technology

Big Tech bolts politics

Illustration: Eniola Odetunde/Axios

Big Tech fed politics. Then it bled politics. Now it wants to be dead to politics. 

Why it matters: The social platforms that profited massively on politics and free speech suddenly want a way out — or at least a way to hide until the heat cools. 

Mapped: Confederate monuments over time

Data: Southern Poverty Law Center; Note: There are some monuments with unknown dedication dates and they are not represented in the bar chart; Map: Michelle McGhee/Axios
Updated 2 hours ago - Politics & Policy

Coronavirus dashboard

Illustration: Annelise Capossela/Axios

  1. Health: Several states report zero COVID deaths for the first time in months — CDC says schools should still universally require masks and physical distancing.
  2. Politics: New York to lift mask mandate for vaccinated people — CDC director says politics didn't play a role in abrupt mask policy shift.
  3. Vaccines: Sanofi, GSK COVID vaccine shows strong immune response in phase 2 trials — Vaccine-hesitant Americans cite inaccurate side effects — 600,000 kids between 12 and 15 have received Pfizer dose since FDA authorization.
  4. Business: How retailers are responding to the latest CDC guidance — Delta to require all new employees be vaccinated — Target, CVS and other stores ease mask requirements after CDC guidance.
  5. World: World's largest vaccine maker expects to resume exports by end of 2021 — Biden administration to send 20 million U.S.-authorized vaccine doses abroad.
  6. Variant tracker: Where different strains are spreading.

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