Google Photos Just Made the Case for Breaking Up Big Tech
A new policy perfectly illustrates a core issue across the industry
After five years of Google Photos offering unlimited, free storage of “high-quality” compressed images, Google announced on Wednesday that its policy is changing. Starting next June, any new photos you upload will count toward the 15 gigabytes of free storage offered to every Google account. (Your old photos won’t.) After that, you’ll have to pay a subscription fee for Google One, its cloud storage service.
In one sense, that’s a totally reasonable policy change for a product that has become wildly popular since the initial free-storage offer. Storage isn’t really free or unlimited, after all, and 15 gigabytes is still a lot of space. Some even argue that paying Google directly for services such as Google Photos represents a healthier business relationship long-term than paying with your data or attention.
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But viewed from another lens, it’s a galling bait-and-switch and an object lesson in anticompetitive behavior by a Big Tech firm. The unlimited free storage offer was arguably Google Photos’ top selling point, one that few, if any, competing providers could match. The company was likely willing to lose money on its service in exchange for the photos’ value in training its A.I. systems and for the value of keeping users in its broader software ecosystem.
Now that Google has lured more than 1 billion users to the service, making it an integral part of their digital lives (not to mention a huge hassle to switch), that original selling point is gone.
As Platformer’s Casey Newton pointed out on Twitter, though, the real losers here are not Google Photos users. It’s still a great product in many ways. The losers are all the rival photo apps that Google Photos crushed on its way to the top, including startups such as Everpix, Loom, and Picturelife. (Newton reported on the struggles of photo storage startups for The Verge in 2015.)
What was once a hotly competitive and innovative space is now largely controlled by Google and a few other giants, such as Apple. And this points to another set of losers, albeit a nebulous one: everyone who might have benefited from the new ideas and fresh features that were never developed because startups didn’t stand a chance against Google.
It would be easy to reach for a sardonic “don’t be evil” reference here. But what Google is doing here, and why it matters, isn’t best understood in moral terms. At every step, it was just doing what successful companies do. It offered a great product for free because it could afford to, it crushed competitors largely by virtue of being the best option on the market, and now it’s raising prices because the free storage offer has served its purpose.
Instead, this move is best understood from the standpoint of competition and antitrust. It’s Google’s vast size and scope — the way its products in different markets complement and cross-subsidize each other — that gave it unmatchable advantages over smaller rivals. In retrospect, the free storage offer looks a lot like predatory pricing, whether that was Google’s intent or not. But the bigger picture is that Google, like other dominant platforms, has its hand in so many different, mutually reinforcing lines of business that it will always be incentivized to leverage them in anticompetitive ways. From a certain standpoint — the standpoint of maximizing profit and shareholder value — it would be foolish not to.
It’s that sprawling, multifarious nature of digital platforms that the U.S. House of Representatives antitrust subcommittee sought to address with its hefty report last month recommending a suite of new measures to rein in Big Tech. The Google Photos episode is just the latest example of why such measures are needed.
There’s a common misconception that calls to break up Big Tech are motivated by enmity or jealousy of success. No doubt such enmity and jealousy exist, but those aren’t why serious antitrust advocates believe we need to act. And the serious proposals on the table to “break up Big Tech” aren’t about vengefully smashing the companies to bits as I explained in August. They’re about restricting the largest platforms’ free rein to leverage their power across different business lines.
We need new antitrust laws for Big Tech not because big tech firms are evil but because they can’t help themselves. They’re playing on the playing field they’ve been given. And if it’s all downhill from their side, then the answer is not to blame and shame them but to fix the field.