On Monday, 50 Attorneys General across the nation and in US territories launched the single largest bipartisan investigation against Google, the most powerful search engine monopoly in the world. The Washington Post reports that on the basis of anti-trust involving allegations of unfair advertising and deceptive search practices, the probe could seriously threaten the unchallenged Big Tech establishment if inspectors make a solid case for the prosecution.
“Google dominates all aspects of advertising on the internet and searching on the internet,” argued Republican Attorney General Ken Paxton from Texas, appearing on the steps of the Supreme Court with his fellow cross-state colleagues. “They dominate the buyer side, the seller side, the auction side, and the video side with YouTube,” he continues, stressing that co-signing states “will go wherever the facts lead” but will issue “top-to-bottom scrutiny of its sprawling business beyond just ads,” according to the report.
Ironically, the only states ignoring the probe include deep-red Alabama and deep-blue California — the fatherland state of all these Silicon Valley tech giants. When pressed for comment by The Los Angelas Times, California State Attorney General Xavier Becerra refused to comment on their absence from the probe. Aside from claims of wanting to “protect the integrity of potential and ongoing investigations,” the AG never specified which cases posed a conflict in particular. The only other parallel probes include one from the Department of Justice, another from the Federal Trade Commission and the 16 current lawsuits held across the entire big tech sector where California’s work is subject only against Facebook, not Google.
“We applaud the 50 state attorneys general for taking this unprecedented stand against Big Tech by uniting to investigate Google’s destruction of competition in search and advertising,” added the Open Markets Institute, a Washington think-tank advocating antitrust reform, in a recent statement to The Verge. “We haven’t seen a major monopolization case against a tech giant since Microsoft was sued in 1998. Today’s announcement marks the start of a new era.” This isn’t to say it’s Google’s first brush with an anti-trust probe, six years following the FTC’s 2013 rule to pursue no further charges against the search engine corporation due to a lack of substantial evidence. Thanks to the power of modern reporting and government inquisition, however, there’s already smoke to this fire to suggest foul play.
Ashley Moody, the Republican State Attorney General of Florida, indicated to the Post their new Google probe will start analyzing the company’s vast data stores. “Google monitors our online behavior, and captures data on every one of us as we navigate the internet,” she said. “This investigation will initially focus on the capture of that information and whether Google embedded itself on every level of the online market [for] ad sales to monopolize this industry. When there is no longer a free market or competition, this increases prices, even something marketed as free, and harms consumers. Is something really free if we are increasingly giving over our private information? Is something really free if online ad prices go up based on one company’s control?”
It shouldn’t be understated how much control YouTube, Google, and their overseeing owner Alphabet holds over this market. As of today, one entity controls a staggering market share of over 73.39% of all online video content, over 89.95% of all internet searches, around 2–3 billion users in combined monthly estimates and lavish revenues upwards of $110.8 Billion, reaching such a tipping point they’re all able to make their own spots on Fortune 500 among the most powerful entities in existence. “Even the largest social media platform in the world must follow the law and respect consumers,” James argued in a statement last week; “I am proud to be leading a bipartisan coalition of attorneys general in investigating whether [Big Tech] has stifled competition and put users at risk.”
Combine this power with the scandals surrounding SpyWare VPNs, the admitted slant towards “authoritative news sources”, faulty software security leaving data exposures, allowing unethical email access to third-party app developers and billions from the government in AI drone programs the likes of Project Maven, you’re not dealing with some small “private company that can do what it likes.” In this case, their freedom allows for the elimination, acquisition or intimidation of anyone else playing their game while also abusing those who simply can’t go elsewhere for an internet refuge.
Separately, these efforts were repeated in New York’s State Attorney General Letitia James filing a formal investigation into whether Facebook “endangered consumer data, reduced the quality of consumers’ choices, or increased the price of advertising” in a similar manner. This coalition, however, only includes attorneys general from Colorado, Florida, Iowa, Nebraska, North Carolina, Ohio, Tennessee, and the District of Columbia despite having an arguably larger catalog of tyrannized market examples. As I’ve reported in the past, Facebook maintains over 2.5 billion users across its market share of over 75% of all social media, acquiring its legitimate competition in the likes of Instagram, WhatsApp and more, ranking in around $55 Billion in revenues.
This is upheld despite the Cambridge Analytica data breach, its unsecured database of 1.5 million emails and passwords, allowing advertisers access to users’ “shadow contact info,” allowing device makers access to private profiles, the use of spyware VPNs to secretly surveillance minors, the intentional media suppression of independent outlets following mainstream partnerships, its non-consensual facial recognition software database, political advertising systems with disastrous fraud problems and bribing editors of Wikipedia to cover up such scandals from the public. For those with a question on whether Facebook, Google and other masters of the universe misused power over the digital discourse, there’s just no denial at this point.
“There’s an old saying about how history doesn’t repeat itself but it rhymes, and we’re definitely in a rhyming mode,” once wrote Edward T. O’Donnell, a historian at Massachusetts College of the Holy Cross, according to The Times. “Our worries about our technological future are sending us back to solutions in our industrial past. The rising fear of the day was that honest, hardworking people are being screwed and the system is rigged. Nearly every household had a five-gallon red can of Standard Oil’s kerosene, but the founder, John D. Rockefeller, was often seen as the rapacious octopus.”
All of these Big Tech institutions, holding billions in both users and wealth, are in this exact same position where their necessity is unbound by a need for ethics. What’s unclear is whether current laws on the books, which were drafted years before the development of these technologies, can adapt to the modern monopoly landscape. “People might enjoy using the tech platforms but they are also asking, What kind of society do we want?” added Hal Singer, a senior fellow at George Washington University’s Institute of Public Policy, noting the flawed anti-trust rule that no cost to the consumer equals no problem. “We’re at one of those antitrust moments.”
Since 1911, the government has passed many groundbreaking anti-trust reforms, including the break up of Standard Oil under the Sherman Antitrust Act. “Anybody who knows anything about the conduct of American business knows that the managers of the large corporations do their business with one eye constantly cast over their shoulders at the antitrust division,” wrote Richard Hofstadter in 1964. A return to the anti-trust crusades should give Google, Facebook, and other tech giants nightmares before conducting their predatory actions, especially in the aftermath Brown Shoe v. the United States.
As written by Times journalist David Streitfeld, this 1956 case against the Brown Shoe corporation and their merger with Kinney gave both anti-trust regulators an increased definition of what constituted as an “unhealthy concentration” in a market. While Brown Shoe and Kinney only owned only 7.2 percent of the country’s retail shoe stores, it was their distribution in just six cities which resulted in a 40% control over children’s shoes, leaving the Chief Justice Earl Warren to write “the protection of viable, small, locally owned businesses” was a priority, even if “occasional higher costs and prices” might be the result.
“At the time, the court was very concerned about trends toward concentration and growth by acquisition,” wrote C. Paul Rogers III, a professor at SMU School of Law. “It ignored efficiency arguments, saying efficiency gains could actually be negative because they can squeeze out the small guys.” While stating he thought this particular case was wrongly decided on its facts, “but if that populist approach comes back, it would be scary to these very efficient high-tech behemoths.”
If the probe uses this current precedent to take action against online concentration, it might help serious accountability beyond just a few million in fines from the FTC. Nevertheless, a lack of new laws on the basis of privacy, free speech, due process, and advertising security could maintain blindspots even if there is market competition. “I am very skeptical that more competition is going to make the platforms less exploitative of user data,” Singer added. “Their whole reason for existing is to exploit user data.”
While this is the inherent problem with barely regulated Big Tech as a sector of perpetual predation, the least that could be done is kneecap their ability to centralize the suffering. “The American people designed antimonopoly law so anyone can understand the rules,” concluded Barry Lynn, the executive director of the Open Markets Institute. “Enforcers followed guidelines that limited industrial firms to 25 percent of any market. To enforce the law, in other words, all you had to do was be able to count to four. We don’t need economists to help us count to four.”