NPI's Cascadia Advocate

Offering commentary and analysis from Washington, Oregon, and Idaho, The Cascadia Advocate is the Northwest Progressive Institute's unconventional perspective on world, national, and local politics.

Monday, September 9th, 2019

Forty-eight states have launched a major antitrust investigation targeting Google

Search and adver­tis­ing giant Google and its par­ent com­pa­ny Alpha­bet are about to face more reg­u­la­to­ry scruti­ny, but this time from the state lev­el:

Fifty attor­neys gen­er­al are join­ing an inves­ti­ga­tion into Google over pos­si­ble antitrust vio­la­tions, Texas Attor­ney Gen­er­al Ken Pax­ton, the initiative’s leader, announced Mon­day. The news con­firms reports last week about the bipar­ti­san inves­ti­ga­tion into Google’s prac­tices.

The probe includes attor­neys gen­er­al from forty-eight states, the Dis­trict of Colum­bia and Puer­to Rico.

Wash­ing­ton, Ore­gon, Ida­ho, Alas­ka, and Mon­tana are all on board. The only states that aren’t par­tic­i­pat­ing are Cal­i­for­nia (where Alpha­bet is head­quar­tered) and Alaba­ma. The Los Ange­les Times reports that Cal­i­for­ni­a’s Attor­ney Gen­er­al declined to pro­vide a ratio­nale for why the Gold­en State isn’t a par­ty to the probe.

That’s left many Google crit­ics scratch­ing their heads.

“I just do not under­stand why Cal­i­for­nia is not a part of this effort,” said John Simp­son, who served as the pri­va­cy and tech­nol­o­gy project direc­tor at Con­sumer Watch­dog, a non­prof­it advo­ca­cy orga­ni­za­tion, until he retired ear­li­er this year. “Google has monop­o­lized the mar­ket and real­ly needs to be held account­able for that.”

It is nonethe­less remark­able to see Demo­c­ra­t­ic and Repub­li­can attor­neys gen­er­al from the coun­try’s oth­er states (minus Alaba­ma) team­ing up to inves­ti­gate Google. Regard­less of their polit­i­cal views, pri­va­cy and fair­ness are on the minds of these AGs, as their state­ments to the press regard­ing the probe make clear.

“We have fifty attor­neys gen­er­al from across the nation who are involved in this inves­ti­ga­tion that we’re lead­ing from Texas… This is a com­pa­ny that dom­i­nates all aspects of adver­tis­ing on the inter­net and search­ing on the inter­net as they dom­i­nate the buy­ers’ side, the sell­ers’ side, the auc­tion side and even the video side with YouTube.”

– Texas Attor­ney Gen­er­al Ken Pax­ton, a Repub­li­can

“When there is no longer a free mar­ket or com­pe­ti­tion, this increas­es prices, even when some­thing is mar­ket­ed as free, and harms con­sumers. Is some­thing real­ly free if we are increas­ing­ly giv­ing over our pri­va­cy? Is some­thing real­ly free if online ad prices go up based on one company’s con­trol?”

– Flori­da Attor­ney Gen­er­al Ash­ley Moody, a Repub­li­can

“The state attor­neys gen­er­al, they are an inde­pen­dent bunch… And they can be quite tena­cious. So I’m very con­fi­dent that this bipar­ti­san group is going to be led by the facts and not be swayed by any con­clu­sion that may fall short, if you will, if it’s incon­sis­tent with our facts, on the fed­er­al side. So we’re going to do what we think is right based on our inves­ti­ga­tion.”

– Dis­trict of Colum­bia Attor­ney Gen­er­al Karl Racine, a Demo­c­rat

“There’s no ques­tion that Google is the dom­i­nant play­er when it comes to inter­net search­es with near­ly nine­ty per­cent of the [market’s] share… And there’s noth­ing wrong with being the dom­i­nant play­er if it’s done fair­ly. That’s what our inves­ti­ga­tion intends to uncov­er and reveal — whether Google is play­ing by the rules and act­ing fair­ly.”

– Utah Attor­ney Gen­er­al Sean Reyes, a Repub­li­can

The rea­son the above quotes are most­ly from Repub­li­cans, by the way, is that the press con­fer­ence announc­ing the probe most­ly fea­tured Repub­li­can AGs. Which, again, is very sig­nif­i­cant con­sid­er­ing that Repub­li­can elect­ed offi­cials are usu­al­ly sym­pa­thet­ic to the coun­try’s cap­tains of indus­try and their armies of lob­by­ists.

NPI has been con­cerned for more than a decade about Google’s busi­ness prac­tices and its per­sis­tent, unend­ing efforts to under­mine every­one’s pri­va­cy.

We’re glad to see oth­ers voic­ing sim­i­lar con­cerns, espe­cial­ly small busi­ness­es.

The CEO of Base­camp, a small soft­ware firm in Chica­go, helped set off the new­ly skep­ti­cal ques­tions this week when he blast­ed Google for its pol­i­cy of allow­ing any­one to buy ads relat­ed to a brand name; if some­one search­es Google for “Base­camp,” they might first see an ad for the company’s rivals.

“When Google puts four paid ads ahead of the first organ­ic result for your own brand name, you’re forced to pay up if you want to be found,” Basecamp’s CEO Jason Fried said on Twit­ter on Tues­day.

“It’s a shake­down. It’s ran­som.”

We agree. And it’s time for our elect­ed rep­re­sen­ta­tives to do some­thing about it. When a mar­ket becomes hope­less­ly rigged, inter­ven­tion is required.

There’s no such thing as a “free” mar­ket, con­trary to what groups like the Wash­ing­ton Pol­i­cy Cen­ter assert. All mar­kets are con­struct­ed for some­one’s ben­e­fit, and it is essen­tial that we con­tin­u­ous­ly ask the ques­tion Who is this mar­ket serv­ing when eval­u­at­ing a mar­ket’s per­for­mance. At NPI, we believe mar­kets should oper­ate fair­ly and con­tribute to the broad pros­per­i­ty of all.

Google has become syn­ony­mous with search, and it has used its dom­i­nant posi­tion in that mar­ket to cre­ate a lucra­tive adver­tis­ing busi­ness. Small busi­ness­es want­i­ng to be found by new cus­tomers have no choice but to play by Google’s self-serv­ing rules. There are oth­er search engines, but they have a very small mar­ket share.

This is some­thing that is undoubt­ed­ly going to be a focus of the antitrust probe.

(Speak­ing of oth­er search engines, we rec­om­mend switch­ing your default search engine to Duck­Duck­Go, which does­n’t track you and offers supe­ri­or results.)

The Euro­pean Union has for years been the only pub­lic enti­ty in the world real­ly putting Google under a reg­u­la­to­ry mag­ni­fy­ing glass.

That now seems to be chang­ing with the launch of fed­er­al and state lev­el probes into Google’s busi­ness prac­tices. In the 1990s, Microsoft came under sim­i­lar scruti­ny, and was ulti­mate­ly tak­en to court over its busi­ness prac­tices.

At one point, a fed­er­al judge ordered Microsoft bro­ken up. Microsoft appealed that rul­ing and was able to avoid being split in two, but the lit­i­ga­tion sparked reforms to the com­pa­ny’s busi­ness prac­tices. In our view, the Microsoft of today is a bet­ter behaved com­pa­ny than the Microsoft of the 1990s and ear­ly 2000s.

We don’t see Google aban­don­ing its “sur­veil­lance cap­i­tal­ism” busi­ness mod­el on its own. Google needs an inter­ven­tion so that it becomes a com­pa­ny less dom­i­nant in search and adver­tis­ing and much more respect­ful of every­one’s pri­va­cy.

Here’s hop­ing it gets one.

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