When Sundar Pichai succeeded Larry Page as the head of Google’s parent company in December, he was handed a bag of problems: Shareholders had sued the company, Alphabet, over big financial packages handed to executives accused of misconduct. An admired office culture was fraying. Most of all, antitrust regulators were circling.
On Tuesday, the justice department accused Google of being “a monopoly gatekeeper of the Internet”, one that uses anti-competitive tactics to protect and strengthen its dominant hold over web search and search advertising.
Google, which has generated vast profits through a recession, a pandemic and earlier investigations by government regulators on five continents, now faces the first truly existential crisis in its 22-year history.
The company’s founders, Page and Sergey Brin, have left the defence to the soft-spoken Pichai, who has worked his way up the ranks over 16 years with a reputation for being a conscientious caretaker rather than an impassioned entrepreneur.
Pichai, a former product manager, may seem an unlikely candidate to lead his company’s fight with the federal government. But if the tech industry’s bumptious history with antitrust enforcement is any lesson, a caretaker who has reluctantly stepped into the spotlight might be preferable to a charismatic leader born to it.
Pichai, 48, is expected to make the case — as he has for some time — that the company is not a monopoly even though it has a 92 per cent global market share of Internet searches. Google is good for the country, so goes the corporate message, and has been a humble economic engine — not a predatory job killer.
“He has to come off as an individual who is trying to do the right thing not only for his company but broader society,” said Paul Vaaler, a business and law professor at the University of Minnesota. “If he comes off as evasive, petulant and a smart aleck, this is going to be a killer in front of the court and the court of public opinion.”
In an email to employees on Tuesday, he urged Google employees to stay focused on their work so that users will continue to use its products not because they have to but because they want to.
“Scrutiny is nothing new for Google, and we look forward to presenting our case,” Pichai wrote. “I’ve had Googlers ask me how they can help, and my answer is simple: Keep doing what you’re doing.”
Few executives have faced a challenge like this, and the most iconic figures in the industry have wilted under the glare of antitrust scrutiny.
Bill Gates, who was chief executive of Microsoft in the last big technology antitrust case two decades ago, came across as combative and evasive in depositions, reinforcing the view that the company was a win-at-all-costs bully. Gates said last year that the lawsuit had been such a “distraction” that he “screwed up” the transition to mobile phone software and ceded the market to Google.
Page dealt with impending antitrust scrutiny with detachment, spending his time on futuristic technology projects instead of huddling with lawyers. Even as the EU handed down three fines against Google for anticompetitive practices, Page barely addressed the matter publicly.
On a conference call with reporters on Tuesday, justice department officials declined to reveal whether they had spoken to Page.
In its complaint, the justice department, along with 11 states, said Google had foreclosed competition in the search market by striking deals with handset manufacturers, including Apple, and mobile carriers to block rivals from competing effectively.
New York Times News Service