Google is one of the largest companies in the world, and has a major influence not only on the internet itself, but all its users. On Tuesday October 20th, 2020, the United States Department of Justice along with eleven state Attorney Generals filed a civil antitrust lawsuit against Google. Google is under heavy scrutiny, and the future of the tech giant is dependent upon the results of this lawsuit. The main objectives of this paper are to allude to whether or not Google is in fact in violation of antitrust laws, and whether or not their business practices and potential monopolization of the market lies within ethical boundaries, or violates them. There are four main ethical theories that will evaluate Google, those four theories include Individualism, Utilitarianism, Kantianism, and Virtue Theory. Each theory consists of different rules and criteria, but with all four justifications considered, Google’s recent practices can be evaluated fairly and without bias.
What is Google?
“Our mission is to organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful” (1). This is the mission statement for Google, an American multinational technology company, that has dominated the internet over the past decade. Google specializes in internet services and products, most importantly, online advertising technologies, a global search engine, cloud computing, software, and hardware. Google is the most visited website worldwide. It is considered one of the big five technology companies in the United States: Google, Apple, Amazon, Facebook, and Microsoft. (2) Undoubtedly, Google has embedded itself into the daily lives of billions of people all across the world. Google was first conceived as a graduate project at Stanford, however, since its initial public offering in 2004, it has amassed into one of the most recognizable firms worldwide. In order to truly understand the worldwide impact of Google, the following information must be acknowledged. In an article compiling statistics on Google, the author states the following, “Google handles more than 40,000 queries per second. That translates to over 3.5 billion searches every day. Additionally, as of December 2019, Google holds 92.71% of the search engine market share“(3). Not only does Google have a huge consumer base, but it also serves as a marketplace. The article states, “[Producers] can get up to 30% more customers
by only moving up one spot in Google’s search results, and users are four times more likely to click on a Google ad than on one by any of its competitors” (3). Google’s influence upon its consumers has exponentially grown over the years through new advertising strategies. Overall, Google has grown into a household name and entity in billions of lives, and will continue to provide its vast services and products to people worldwide. However, despite Google’s overwhelming success, it has faced its share of obstacles. On October 20th, 2020, a civil antitrust lawsuit was filed against Google by the Department of Justice.
[The graphic to the left shows the statistics of various search engine usage rates across multiple platforms. It is important to acknowledge that Google is represented by the blue, red, and a few of the smaller sections in the graph. The largest competitors of Google are also shown in this graphic.]
To put it in simple terms, antitrust laws are laws which regulate firms, and prevent the monopolization of markets in order to preserve the competitive integrity of the market. The Federal Trade Commission provides an overview of the various antitrust laws. The FTC states,
“Congress passed the first antitrust law, the Sherman Act, in 1890 as a "comprehensive charter of economic liberty aimed at preserving free and unfettered competition as the rule of trade." In 1914, Congress passed two additional antitrust laws: The Federal Trade Commission Act, which created the FTC, and the Clayton Act” (6)
Despite being passed by Congress over a hundred years ago, these three main antitrust laws, with some minor changes, are still serving today. The Sherman Act, according to the FTC, “outlaws every contract, combination, or conspiracy in restraint of trade, and any monopolization, attempted monopolization, or conspiracy or combination to monopolize” (6). The Sherman Act has been cited in many antitrust lawsuits in the past, and is often the deciding factor of whether a company is deemed as a monopoly. The Federal Trade Commission Act prohibits, “‘unfair methods of competition’ and ‘unfair or deceptive acts or practices’ “(6). Lastly, the Clayton Act prohibits forms or mergers in which the same people are able to make decisions for competing firms. All three of these antitrust laws form the basis for any antitrust lawsuit filed against a firm. In order to win an antitrust lawsuit, the Department of Justice must be able to provide enough evidence to prove that the firm is in violation of one or more of these laws. With regards to Google, the Department of Justice has enforced the Sherman Act similar to what they have done in the past. In order to understand the consequences of a violation of antitrust laws, historical cases must be analyzed.
History of Antitrust Lawsuits
Google is not the first major firm to face an antitrust lawsuit; some notorious antitrust lawsuits include the ones filed against AT&T in 1974 and Microsoft in 1998. The Department of Justice has made it clear that this current lawsuit filed against Google has the same severity of those previous lawsuits. In order to fully understand the complexity of the lawsuit filed against Google, there must be some historical context to provide a basis for this current lawsuit. In 1974, the Department of Justice filed a civil antitrust lawsuit against AT&T. The following excerpt has been taken directly from the public release by the Department of Justice in 1974,
“According to the complaint, the alleged violation of Section 2 of the Sherman Act had the following effects: Defendants have achieved and maintained a monopoly in telecommunications service and telecommunications equipment in the United States; Actual and potential competition in telecommunications service and telecommunications equipment has been restrained and eliminated; and Purchasers of telecommunications service and telecommunications equipment have been denied the benefits of a free and competitive market” (4).
Under the antitrust laws, AT&T was deemed a monopoly, and was forced to split up following the lawsuit in order to sustain a free and competitive market. AT&T coincidentally possessed some similar statistics to Google in regards to market ownership in an industry. The document states, “AT&T has total assets of more than $67 billion, and its operating company subsidiaries supply more than 80 percent of the nation's telephones” (4). The Department of Justice has been closely watching Google for years, and has finally filed this lawsuit with the same concern that was voiced in 1974. Fast forward 24 years, and the Department of Justice filed its second major antitrust lawsuit against Microsoft. On May 18th, 1998, the Department of Justice made the antitrust suit available to the public, under the claim that Microsoft was unlawfully monopolizing computer software markets. Within the document, Joel I. Klein, Assistant Attorney General in charge of the Department's Antitrust Division, said the following regarding the case, "This action will protect innovation by ensuring that anyone who develops a software program will have a fair opportunity to compete in the marketplace” and additionally, “Inventors and investors cannot and will not develop and market innovative software programs if they know that Microsoft can use its Windows monopoly to block the distribution of their programs and to force consumers to buy Microsoft's competing products” (5). Similar to AT&T, Microsoft was acting as a monopoly in the software industry. This successful lawsuit protected the competitive market, and ensured the consumers that no large firm was above the law. The current antitrust lawsuit, filed by the Department of Justice, aims to do the same; preserve the free and competitive market that allows consumers and producers to make fair and conscious decisions.
Overview of Google’s Antitrust Lawsuit
October 20th, 2020 marked the beginning of another major antitrust lawsuit against the internet giant, Google. Similar to AT&T and Microsoft, Google has control over most of their market. The Department of Justice is labeling Google as a monopoly, whereas Google is stating that they are a free to use search engine who is driven by the consumer. In a statement from Attorney General William Barr,
“Over the course of the last 16 months, the Antitrust Division collected convincing evidence that Google no longer competes only on the merits but instead uses its monopoly power – and billions in monopoly profits – to lock up key pathways to search on mobile phones, browsers, and next generation devices, depriving rivals of distribution and scale” (7).
Attorney General Barr along with numerous other Attorney Generals from all different parts of the country as well as the Department of Justice, are stating that Google is wielding monopoly power and is successfully manipulating the consumers. Attorney General Barr would then go on to state, “This lack of competition harms users, advertisers, and small businesses in the form of fewer choices, reduced quality (including on metrics like privacy), higher advertising prices, and less innovation” (7). Google is continuing to grow and prosper off of these practices, and without regulation, consumers and smaller firms and producers will be hurt. In closing, Attorney General Barr writes, “If we let Google continue its anticompetitive ways, we will lose the next wave of innovators and Americans may never get to benefit from the “next Google.” The time has come to restore competition to this vital industry” (7). The Department of Justice is enforcing the Sherman Act, as explained previously as the prohibition of any restriction in trade or monopolization of a market. However, the information provided by Attorney General William Barr is not sufficient in exploiting Google’s unethical practices. The lawsuit released by the Department of Justice provides a more in-depth explanation as to how Google is in violation of antitrust laws. The complaint alleges that Google acquired monopoly powers in search and search advertising through the following:
“Entering into exclusivity agreements that forbid preinstallation of any competing search service. Entering into tying and other arrangements that force preinstallation of its search applications in prime locations on mobile devices and make them un-deletable, regardless of consumer preference. Entering into long-term agreements with Apple that require Google to be the default – and de facto exclusive – general search engine on Apple’s popular Safari browser and other Apple search tools. Generally using monopoly profits to buy preferential treatment for its search engine on devices, web browsers, and other search access points, creating a continuous and self-reinforcing cycle of monopolization” (8).
The complaint against Google is substantial, and the giant corporation is facing quite the challenge with the odds stacked against them. In response to the allegations brought up against them, Google wittily responded, “The bigger point is that people don't use Google because they have to, they use it because they choose to. We remain absolutely focused on delivering the free services that help Americans every day” (9). There is quite a lot that lies within the verdict of this lawsuit, and this will unequivocally impact the markets, its producers, and consumers worldwide. Considering the vast amount of information, the claims by the Department of Justice seem to wield enough power to impose antitrust restrictions on Google. However, this is an ongoing lawsuit, and the eventual verdict will not be a simple answer. The following ethical evaluation will be based on the claims that the Department of Justice has put forward.
The people affected by this antitrust lawsuit extends much further than Google itself. Obviously, the shareholders, employees, and executives of Google will be substantially impacted by this lawsuit. However, as the worldwide leading search engine, Google reaches billions of people all over the planet. The stakeholders consist of all of the billions of individuals worldwide that use Google’s search engine and products every day. The verdict in this antitrust lawsuit will impact the advertising on google for all of the producers and firms worldwide that pay Google to run their advertisements. Consumers and smaller producers may even benefit from this lawsuit if Google’s advertising practices are changed, giving smaller businesses an opportunity to grow. Certainly, in the case of a monopoly, competitors are unable to compete in the market. This lawsuit brings life into all of the competitors in the industry, and gives them a fair opportunity to provide their services. The reality is that billions of people are affected by Google and their practices, whether good or bad, this antitrust lawsuit will have an impact on all of our lives.
The Application of Individualism
Individualism is one of four ethical theories that will be used to evaluate Google and their current antitrust lawsuit. Individualism’s primary values are the business, the owner’s choices, and most importantly the business’ profits. According to Dr. Salazar’s Case Manual, the general rule of individualism is that, “business actions should maximize profits for the owners of a business, but do so within the law” (10). Individualism is the contrary to many ethical beliefs, but nonetheless it is a form of ethical evaluation. In the antitrust lawsuit filed against Google, which is an ongoing investigation and lawsuit, it is difficult to completely assess whether or not Google is acting ethically or unethically. Google would state that they are in fact maximizing profits through the generation of ad revenue and the sales of their products. However, according to the Department of Justice, Google is in violation of antitrust laws, and is a monopoly in the market. As stated previously, they have justified their position by stating that Google is in violation of the Sherman Act. They have done so by achieving monopoly powers in the market, and essentially entering agreements with companies like Apple to diminish any presence of competition in the market. By doing this, Google would certainly benefit and profit a lot more off of their services through advertisements. However, this practice is illegal and an abuse of power by the firm. If the Department of Justice can prove that Google has been conducting these practices and is a monopoly, then Google would be acting unethically according to individualism. Again, individualism states that a business’ main objective is to maximize profits within the law, but in this case, Google would be maximizing their profits by breaking antitrust laws. Therefore, from an individualism standpoint, if the accusations filed against Google are true, then Google’s business practices would be unethical.
The Application of Utilitarianism
Utilitarianism, another main ethical theory that will be used to assess Google, focuses on the overall happiness of all human beings. According to the Case Manual, Dr. Salazar states that the primary values of Utilitarianism include, “Happiness of all conscious beings, often interpreted hedonistically as pleasure and the absence of pain, but also sometimes interpreted as the satisfaction of desires” (10). For Google, Utilitarianism states that its actions must promote happiness for all conscious beings, and not only for the business and their consumers. Dr. Salazar states that the ethical rule of Utilitarianism is to, “maximize the happiness in the long run for all conscious beings that are affected by the business action” (10). Utilitarianism is completely different from Individualism; essentially with individualism, it is ethical to conduct a business practice that hurts a majority of individuals as long as the practice maximizes profit and is conducted within the boundaries of the law. With regards to Utilitarianism, maximizing profit is not a main focus, and you can break the law as long as it promotes happiness for the majority of conscious beings. For this reason, it is a lot simpler to evaluate Google and the current antitrust lawsuit under Utilitarianism than Individualism. The verdict in the antitrust lawsuit against Google will not justify Google’s ethical standing. Google is one of the largest and widely recognized firms in the world. As stated earlier, Google is home to billions of consumers, and much of their consumers have Google’s services at their disposal at all times. Google’s search engine is extremely useful and helpful, and makes everyone’s day easier. It is without a doubt that the average person is more than grateful for Google’s substantial information databases and search queries. Billions of lives around the globe are made easier with Google, and it is without a doubt that those individuals are very happy with Google and what it provides to them. However, although the majority is content with the firm’s free-to-use services, there are a few groups of people who are unhappy with Google and are seeking justice. Those groups include the justice system who had filed the lawsuit against Google, and the competitors of Google who do not have a fair chance to compete with its products and services. Utilitarianism focuses on the overall happiness of conscious beings, but not every single conscious being can always be content. For this reason, the majority rules. In the case of Google, despite the antitrust lawsuit and potential violation of antitrust laws, their products and services make billions of people all around the world happy. From a Utilitarian standpoint, Google’s practices would be considered ethical, because although it might be a violation of antitrust laws, it makes more people happy than not.
The Application of Kantianism
Kantianism is one of the more complex ethical theories, and the evaluation of Google using Kantian ethics can be influenced through the outcome of the lawsuit as well as the legitimacy of the allegations against Google. According to the Case Manual written by Dr. Salazar, the primary decision-making values of Kantianism ethics include, “Rational decision making, autonomy of individuals, honesty, and freedom” (10). Kantian ethics vouches for decisions to be made based on the “Good Will”, essentially, this means that decisions should be made with the right intentions. Kantianism states that you should not be a hypocrite, to be consistent and rational, allow and help people to make rational decisions, respect individuals, their own rationale, and their differences, and finally do what is right because it is the right thing to do. Dr. Salazar states that the Kantian ethical rule is the following, “Always act in ways that respect and honor individuals and their choices. Don’t lie, cheat, manipulate or harm others to get your way. Rather, use informed and rational consent from all parties” (10). Essentially, with regards to the Kantian ethical theory, a party must allow others to make decisions for themselves, and you must not lie or manipulate them in any way that will affect their ability to make rational decisions. A law of Kantian ethics that applies to the Google antitrust lawsuit is the Formula of Humanity. This ethical law states that you must not use an individual as a mere means to achieve what you want, but rather use them as an end. With regards to Google’s case, it appears that through the accusations of broken antitrust laws, Google has used its “free” platform to create a monopoly. Google has always credited its success to its fairness and accessibility to consumers, but their free platform has been manipulating billions of people for years. Although it is a free platform, Google runs thousands of ads to each user, and has implemented some new advertising strategies to maximize their success. In an article exposing the invasive tactics of Google, the author writes,
“That’s how monopolies extract their price. Google is playing fast and loose with the whole idea of search engines, making sure the simplest and easiest-to-access results are either paid ads or information that keeps you on Google. Either way, Google wins — and, more often than we realize, we lose” (11).
This article is very informative about advertising practices along with the specified results that allow Google to continue to build on its power on the market and the consumer. Although Google search queries are very useful and helpful more than not, the indirect effects of these advertisements and internet traffic are a direct manipulation of the consumer. Everything that Google does is conducted with the main objective of keeping you on their sites, and keeping their products a favorite amongst consumers. Although Google claims that their platform has the purpose of helping the consumer, in reality, the consumers are pawns in the grand scheme. The whole reason that Google has gotten to the point where an antitrust lawsuit was filed against them, is due to their manipulation of the consumer in order to gain more power. Additionally, through their search queries, Google is manipulating the individual’s rational and ability to make rational decisions by themselves. In the article exposing Google of unethical practices, the author writes, “A few weeks ago Elliot Anderson, a former state lawmaker who helped get Question One on the ballot, noticed that Googling “question one Nevada” generated a box at the top of the results that began: “Vote ‘no’ on Question 1” (11).
Not only is the firm using the consumer to further its dominance over its market, but it is also impeding on the individual’s rationale by attempting to influence them through their beliefs as a firm. With all the information considered, from a Kantian standpoint, Google is clearly acting unethically and their business practices violate the Formula of Humanity. Google is using the consumer to further its strangle on the market, and is utilizing their market power to influence the rational of their consumers. Undoubtedly, Google is in violation of Kantianism and the evidence to support how Google has acted unethically is similar to the evidence cited by the Department of Justice.
[The image above shows the search results for Question One on a Nevada ballot, which was discussed in the prior paragraph.]
The Application of Virtue Theory
Virtue Theory ethics assesses whether a person, or in this case a firm, is virtuous or not. According to the Case Manual, the ethical rule of Virtue Theory is to, “Act so as to embody a variety of virtuous or good character traits so as to avoid vicious or bad character traits” (10). Overall, the objective is to accumulate good character traits by embodying the values of these various traits, and to avoid any harmful or malicious traits. When Virtue Theory is applied to an individual or firm, the following virtues are assessed: Prudence, Temperance, Courage, and Justice. These four character-traits are commonly referred to as the “Four Cardinal Values”. In regards to the four cardinal virtues, prudence and justice can be applied to the antitrust lawsuit. Prudence refers to making wise decisions pertaining to your future self, and certainly Google has not made great decisions considering the fact that they are facing an antitrust lawsuit, and are being accused of manipulating consumers and destroying competitors. Rather than utilizing justice to describe what Google has not done, it is important to acknowledge that the Department of Justice is seeking justice for the competitors of Google by attempting to dismantle their alleged monopoly. The advertising practices and corporate goals can be seen as greedy and selfish; Google is generating an absurd amount of money, but as a firm they are adamant about eliminating all forms of competition. As explained in the Kantian evaluation of Google, they are very dishonest with their consumers and are effectively manipulating them to further their control on the market. Overall, from a virtue theory ethical standpoint, Google has accumulated many negative virtues through the events that have led up to an antitrust lawsuit against them. The practices and business model of Google, assessed through virtues, are unethical.
Justified Ethical Evaluation
Given that this case study involves an ongoing lawsuit, which has yet to be heard in court, it is unfair to give a verdict with complete certainty. We have all heard the common theory “Innocent until proven guilty”, but with all the information considered, we can speculate about the outcome of this lawsuit and the potential violation of ethics and morality by Google. In my opinion, after reviewing information from the Department of Justice and further validating some of their claims through outside credible sources, I do believe that Google is in violation of the antitrust laws, especially the Sherman Act which was previously discussed in this study. I believe that Google has engaged in unethical advertising practices in order to manipulate their consumers and the market, the information and studies speak for themselves. We all understand the power that the firm wields, but the methods in which they obtained this power was in violation of both antitrust laws and ethical theories. Google has successfully killed off competition through engaging in deals with other powerful companies like Apple to make their products unavoidable. These deals made by Google to establish themselves as a monopoly power, have violated the law and morals. Although some ethical evaluation does not deem Google’s practices as unethical, I believe the majority of ethical analyses will overwhelmingly deem their practices as unethical. To further develop my belief that Google has acted unethically and violated antitrust laws, I will reiterate a few key points. First off, I believe that any violation of antitrust laws is a violation of the individual consumer’s rights; it does not allow any competitor to experience success, thus destroying any choice that a consumer should be allowed to make. Second, I believe that Google is solely motivated by profits and has little regard for the consumer or any smaller firm that is trying to compete; their practices have proven to be malicious to competition. Google has manipulated the consumer by showing them what they want to see, and further enforcing selective advertisement. They have been able to control the rationality and decision making of billions of otherwise free minds. Google should be unbiased and impartial, and should enforce the belief that each individual should be open minded. However, the manipulation of the individual through prioritizing certain search queries and selective advertisement, has genuinely hurt the average user. Last, I believe the accumulation of search queries to produce a digital profile, and in turn using that to generate familiar and favorite results is an invasion of privacy. Google has been able to justify this by claiming it is helpful and more efficient, but in reality, it is just a means of control. I believe that this lawsuit will be very difficult for Google to put to rest, and I think that the evidence provided by the Department of Justice will help to reach a guilty verdict. I believe that Google needs to change their practices and allow competitors to be active in the industry that way one firm will be unable to manipulate the consumer; Google should be held accountable for their unethical practices.
Google certainly has a lot of work ahead of them to demonstrate that they are and can continue to abide by antitrust laws, regain the trust of the consumer, and regain respect that has been lost to a lot of smaller competing firms and producers. Although Google is under heavy scrutiny with this impending antitrust lawsuit, as one of the most recognized companies in the world, it is without a doubt that Google can regain their respect. In order to resolve this issue, Google must first of all settle this lawsuit. Google must either clear their name and beat the lawsuit, or pay the consequences of the lawsuit and admit their wrongdoings. Once the lawsuit is settled, Google is still far from being up to ethical standards. Google must resolve the issues cited in the lawsuit by implementing new advertising methods that's main objective is being unbiased to the consumer, while still retaining its profitability. Google’s new practices may not be as profitable due to their previous practices being unethical and potentially illegal, but they must initiate change. If they do not change their methods, they may profit more, but they will still be acting unethically towards the consumer and to the market. Once Google implements new business practices which its goals are clearly stated, ethical, and importantly within legal boundaries, Google must be honest with the consumer and competitor. Google needs to encourage competition and allow the consumer to have a fair choice. Google’s current mission statement reads, “Our mission is to organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful”. Google needs to prioritize freedom of will and the power to make individual decisions. They must continue their current mission statement, but attach a crucial part onto it. Google’s new mission statement should emphasize fairness, equal opportunity, freedom of will and choice, privacy and security, and respect for the opposition. Google’s new mission statement should be the following: Our mission is to provide the world’s information and make it accessible for everyone, but to do so impartially and respect the choices and views of all individuals. With Google’s new standards, the system must provide all information equally and make all information easily accessible. Google should not have any favorites, but act as a beneficiary to all individuals despite any preferences. Google should allow for competition, and win its consumers over through honesty and transparency rather than engaging in cutthroat business methods. All employees and management should be in support of being impartial, and welcoming to competition. Google will have to engage in a large-scale marketing campaign to push this new mission statement and regain confidence from its consumers. Although Google’s new practices might not be as profitable as before, their past practices lead them to an antitrust lawsuit which hurt consumer confidence. With their new business methods, Google will certainly avoid any future lawsuits of this kind, and will not have to allocate resources and time towards defending their brand. Google, after the lawsuit despite the outcome, will remain the most popular name in their industry. For this reason, if they become more transparent with their consumer and regain their trust, this can retain their large consumer base. Justice, honesty, and fairness will propel Google from this lawsuit back into profitability, but do so ethically and within the boundaries set by antitrust laws. To conclude, Google still has a long journey ahead of them to get back to where they want to be, but new methodology and values will ensure the legality and ethics of future endeavors.
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11) Fowler, G. (2020, October 27). “Perspective | How does Google's monopoly hurt you? Try these searches”. Retrieved November 23, 2020, from https://www.washingtonpost.com/technology/2020/10/19/google-search-results-monopoly/