Washington’s crackdown on Google is the greatest threat yet to big tech

For decades, companies like Google have enjoyed exponential growth and an almost unobstructed rise to power. But the tide appears to be turning, as US lawmakers crack down on alleged monopolistic practices and public sentiment sours on the former wunderkinder of Silicon Valley.

Antitrust charges brought against Google on Tuesday by the US justice department mark the latest – and most significant – legal challenge yet for big tech.

Barry Lynn, the executive director of the Open Markets Institute, and a longtime critic of tech monopolies, calls the case “an incredibly important statement of intent”.

“By the time this ends I think we will see a radically different company and industry,” he said.

But the charges are also “just a start”, he said, and questions remain about exactly what laws will be created to regulate big tech, with partisan bias and a disorganized smattering of agencies investigating tech firms muddying the waters.

The charges filed against Google are not without controversy. The case was reportedly rushed through by Donald Trump’s attorney general, William Barr, who pushed for it to be filed against the wishes of lawyers who wanted to take more time on the case. Doing so on the cusp of an election that may result in a change of administration “could be detrimental” to the long-term goal of reining in tech giants, said Carl Tobias, a University of Richmond law professor.

“It is altogether messy,” he said. “It is not clear whether what comes out of it will be systematic and well-thought-through.”

The Department of Justice is just one entity racing to take action against Google. In September 2019, attorneys general in 50 US states and territories announced an investigation into Google and Facebook over alleged “monopolistic behavior”. Meanwhile, the Federal Trade Commission has been separately investigating Amazon and Facebook to determine if they abused their massive market power. And in October, a major report detailing an investigation by the House judiciary committee concluded that big tech wielded “too much power” and was censoring political speech, spreading fake news and “killing” the engines of the American economy.

The investigations are made more complicated by the fact that opposition to big tech has become largely politicized, with Democrats mostly targeting companies for their monopoly power and Republicans accusing them of censoring conservative speech.

The latter view is championed by one of the most vocal critics of big tech, Donald Trump. The president has repeatedly accused Twitter and Facebook of censoring him and threatened to take away their protections under Section 230, a statute providing protections for content hosts, which he inaccurately believes would give him more freedom online. The justice department’s charges may represent Trump’s final vendetta against tech companies for their perceived slights against him.

“This may be the last gasp of an administration that we won’t see again for awhile,” Tobias said.

The charges against Google, which describe the company as a “monopoly gatekeeper for the internet”, also highlight a changing perception of the tech industry from benevolent innovators to menacing corporate superpowers.

“Two decades ago, Google became the darling of Silicon Valley as a scrappy startup with an innovative way to search the emerging internet. That Google is long gone,” the suit alleged.

And by taking aim at Google’s search and advertising operations, the justice department has opened a path that could have a wide-ranging impact not just on Google but on the entire tech industry, Lynn said.

“This could lead to investigations of other large parts of their business. Mapping is a search service, YouTube is a search service,” he said. Other companies including Amazon and Facebook are reliant on search to dominate their sectors, he said.

The justice department is modeling its attack on Google as a parallel to the famous Microsoft lawsuit of 1998 – the last time the US government accused a company of operating a monopoly under the Sherman Act, a law that dates back to 1890 and encourages competition between enterprises.

In many ways, Google’s rise to power has become emblematic of the problems posed by big tech. In its infancy, the co-founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin reviled Microsoft as a technological bully that ruthlessly abused its dominance of the personal computer software market to choke off competition that could spawn better products.

Their disdain for Microsoft spurred Google to adopt “Don’t be evil” as a corporate motto, one that remained its moral compass during its transition from a freewheeling startup to a publicly traded company suddenly accountable to shareholders. Google abandoned that motto in 2018, and now confronts an existential threat similar to what Microsoft once faced.

The onslaught of antitrust action against big tech comes years after the Cambridge Analytica scandal revealed that the massive power of Facebook may have been used to sway US elections. Consumers have suffered through years of major data breaches. This year the world watched Amazon’s chief executive, Jeff Bezos, grow $24bn richer while the rest of the global economy suffered from the shocks of a pandemic. Consumers, Tobias said, are fed up.

“People feel like they don’t have control, that they’ve lost all their privacy to companies that just don’t give a damn about them,” he said. “You have to imagine members of Congress have to be responsive to that.”