The spread of the COVID-19 pandemic raised the prospect that any antitrust action could see a further delay. But on Friday, the Wall Street Journal
reported that a lawsuit may be arriving shortly. Here are Brent Kendall and John D. McKinnon
Both the Justice Department and a group of state attorneys general are likely to file antitrust lawsuits against Alphabet Inc.’s Google—and are well into planning for litigation, according to people familiar with the matter.
The Justice Department is moving toward bringing a case as soon as this summer, some of the people said. At least some state attorneys general—led by Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton, a Republican—are likely to file a case, probably in the fall, people familiar with the matter said.
The story goes on to say that it’s undecided whether all of this will be filed as one case or many. Among other issues, there are different theories of the case. Is the antitrust action against Google about its advertising business, or about its search business? That’s the thing having a user base in the billions — there are a lot of ways you can discourage competition.
“We continue to engage with the ongoing investigations led by the Department of Justice and Attorney General Paxton, and we don’t have any updates or comments on speculation,” a Google spokeswoman told me today.
wasn’t able to learn the lawyers’ theory of the case. But in a new paper, a former Obama antitrust official offers one of her own. Kendall and Keach Hagey wrote about it in the Journal on Monday
“There is significant reason for concern that Google has violated U.S. antitrust law,” Yale University economics professor Fiona Scott Morton, the chief economist in the Justice Department’s antitrust division from 2011-2012, wrote in a new academic paper
entitled “Roadmap for a Digital Advertising Monopolization Case Against Google.”
The paper argues Google is using its dominance in search as a springboard to dominate the adjacent market of display advertising, harming publishers, advertisers and consumers in the $130 billion digital advertising market.
Morton’s analysis is based on a December report from the United Kingdom’s Competition and Markets Authority. The report “found that Google had at least 90% market share in the tools publishers use to serve ads; between 40% and 60% of the market for supply-side platforms, or SSPs, the tools publishers use to accept bids from exchanges; and between 50% and 70% of demand-side platforms, or DSPs, the tools advertisers use to bid for digital ads.” Google disputes the study’s findings.
It would be nice if we could have a debate about Google and competition on the merits. But this is the United States and 2020, and so the debate is already tainted by partisan politics. Ken Paxton, the Texas attorney general who is leading the investigation for the attorneys general, is sending fundraising emails promoting his work. Reuters reported
that one email said Texans “‘are put at risk’ by the company, ‘whose executives clearly display anti-conservative and anti-Republican bias, subtly controlling what Americans see when they search for information about national political issues.’”
More recently, President Trump tweeted
that “the Radical Left is in total command & control of Facebook, Instagram, Twitter and Google,” and said his administration “is working to remedy this illegal situation.” Assuming that sort of talk continues — and it’s an election year, so why wouldn’t it? — the antitrust case could be recast in the public imagination as a partisan fight against content moderation. That might be good for political action committee fundraising, but it’s hard to see how it will result in a more competitive economy.
Nilay Patel: You had to know this question was coming. I keep track every week of when Trump and his team held up the flowchart and said, “Some x thousand Google engineers are working on it.”
Just walk me through that day. Did you expect that to come? The next day, Trump said someone from Google had called and apologized to him. Did that happen? Just what was that set of days like?
Pichai: Very early on through COVID, we decided as a company we should do everything [in] areas where our expertise could help. And so we had a wide set of efforts.
I think there were two efforts, and we were in touch with the [White House] coronavirus task force. And there were two efforts, both in terms of what Google can do to provide more information, and Verily was working on a way to develop wide-scale testing, particularly with an emphasis on drive-through testing, with a focus on first responders. And we were in touch on both efforts. And so that’s what it was.
That seems like a very diplomatic way of saying that no, he did not apologize.
In a world with less going on, we might be having a conversation about why the same government considering a breakup of a tech giant was relying on that same tech giant’s size and power to provide critical aid during a pandemic. Or why the government was relying on tech giants for so much of its pandemic response at all. Or even what ever happened to Trump’s 2019 pledge to investigate Google for “treason”
Instead it all just bleeds together into partisan noise. And if and when the antitrust case against Google lands, it’s hard to imagine that won’t just become part of the noise, too.