Mind Matters News and Analysis on Natural and Artificial Intelligence
Popping water balloon / highspeed image
Popping water balloon / highspeed image

Fast Facts re the Google, Facebook Anti-Trust Probes

The 48-state pile-on comes just before an election year

An international news agency reported Monday:

Attorneys general from 48 U.S. states, the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico formally opened an antitrust probe on Monday into Alphabet’s Google, in a sign of growing government scrutiny of U.S. technology giants…

Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton, who is leading the probe, said it will focus on Google’s “overarching control of online advertising markets and search traffic that may have led to anticompetitive behavior that harms consumers.”

David Shepardson, Bryan Pietsch, “U.S. states launch antitrust probe of Google, advertising in focus” at Reuters (May 9, 2019)

A probe of Facebook has been announced as well but it is separate:

The attorneys general of eight states and the District of Columbia are launching an antitrust investigation into Facebook (FB), New York Attorney General Letitia James announced Friday. The investigation is expected to focus on Facebook’s impact on advertising prices, data and consumer privacy and the company’s previous acquisitions, including Instagram and WhatsApp. “I am proud to be leading a bipartisan coalition of attorneys general in investigating whether Facebook has stifled competition and put users at risk,” James said in a statement. “We will use every investigative tool at our disposal to determine whether Facebook’s actions may have endangered consumer data, reduced the quality of consumers’ choices, or increased the price of advertising.”

The multi-state coalition includes Colorado, Florida, Iowa, Nebraska, North Carolina, Ohio and Tennessee, James said.

In a statement, Facebook said it will work “constructively” with the attorneys general.

Brian Fung, “Facebook hit with antitrust investigation by eight states and DC” at CNN Business

It is a probe, not a lawsuit and currently focused on the advertising business. They want to know more about what is happening:

Appearing on the steps of the Supreme Court, Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton charged that Google “dominates all aspects of advertising on the Internet and searching on the Internet,” though he cautioned that despite his criticism the states had launched an investigation for now and not a lawsuit.

Paxton said the probe’s initial focus is online advertising. Google is expected to rake in more than $48 billion in U.S. digital ad revenue this year, far rivaling its peers, while capturing 75 percent of all spending on U.S. search ads, according to eMarketer.

“They dominate the buyer side, the seller side, the auction side and the video side with YouTube,” he said during a news conference alongside officials from 11 states and the District of Columbia.

Tony Romm, “50 U.S. states and territories announce broad antitrust investigation of Google” at Washington Post (September 9, 2019)

This comes on the heels of accusations that such overwhelming dominance could enable meddling in elections. The European Union has fined Google $9 billion in competition-related fines in recent years.

This is one of the first significant actions taken in the United States:

So far, regulatory action on the federal level has had a minimal impact on Big Tech. The FTC recently imposed fines on both Google and Facebook — over their handling of user data — that would be considered large by most standards but represented just a small fraction of their quarterly revenues.

But antitrust, compared with privacy and consumer protection concerns, poses a more direct threat to these companies’ business models. If the federal or state probes find evidence of anti-competitive behavior at Google, for example, the company could be compelled to make its algorithms friendlier to rivals even if that eats at its own profits. It could also be forced to spin off entire business units, such as YouTube.

Lauren Feiner, “Google faces a new antitrust probe by 50 attorneys general” at CNBC.com (September 9, 2019)

Some worry about the complexity of so many governments, aan unusual scenario, piling on:

With the addition of new investigations by states attorneys general, both Google and Facebook are facing increasingly complex legal situations, legal experts say.

Google is facing a joint probe by 48 U.S. states, the District of Columbia, and Puerto Rico into alleged anti-competitive practices, following a similar investigation launched by the Department of Justice in July. Meanwhile, nine states are looking into Facebook’s data-sharing practices, which the Federal Trade Commission began investigating in July. Both companies have said they are cooperating with authorities.

While it’s not unusual for states’ attorneys generals to initiate a separate inquiry, experts say the bipartisan pileup of a majority of states is rare. The move could spell a complicated resolution if the federal and state governments are gunning for different changes, legal experts told Fortune. It could also complicate how the companies are policed.

Danielle Abril, “With States and the Feds Investigating Google and Facebook, the Legal Pressure Is Ramping Up” at Fortune

Only California and Alabama have not joined the Google probe. There are various theories as to why not. From the Los Angeles Times, we learn re the Attorney General Xavier Becerra,

As a candidate for the House of Representatives, Becerra was the recipient of considerable largess from Google. From 2010 through 2016, Becerra’s campaign received $23,000 from Google’s corporate political action committee, Google Inc. NetPAC, according to Federal Election Committee records. Two Google executives donated $2,600 and $5,300, respectively, to Becerra’s campaigns over that span. Google also contributed $7,300 to Becerra’s 2018 campaign for attorney general, and $3,000 to Marshall’s, according to data from FollowTheMoney.org. (September 10, 2019)

Suhana Hussain, “48 states are probing Google on antitrust grounds. Why isn’t California?” at Los Angeles Times

But complicating the picture, Becerra has been a serious advocate of data privacy legislation. And it’s not a given that recipients of campaign donations will always go along with the company’s preferences:

… some politicians who have received money from Google haven’t shied from attacking its business practices. For example, Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders, known critics of big tech companies, have received donations from Google employees for their political campaigns, Vox reports. Interestingly, Warren and Sanders have even called for such companies’ breakup. (September 11, 2019)

Ruchi Gupta, “p Google Antitrust Probe: Why Isn’t California Involved?” at Market Realist

It’s not clear why Alabama is not participating because requests for comment have not been returned.

Whether the complexity of the pushback will be more help to Big Tech or the anti-trust campaigners is worth keeping an eye on.

Update: “Government Orders Google: Let Employees Speak Out” , Wall Street Journal (September 12, 2019) (Subscription required.)


Here are some of our Google “whistleblower” stories:

Prof: Google Must Not Choose the Next President: Robert Epstein, a Clinton supporter in 2016, thinks Big Tech meddling is a risk. And, he says, he isn’t planning on suicide

Whistleblower says Google called police to do a “wellness check” on him. He can be seen doing a perp walk on the sidewalk in front of his house on the video (some portions transcribed here). In the documents Vorhies unearthed, Google seemed to be “intending to scope the information landscape so that they could create their own version of what was objectively true.”

What others are saying about the new Google insider’s revelations. The documents’ authenticity is not in dispute. What to do about them is another matter (Zach Vorhies)

Is Google a cult? Or does it just act that way? Project Veritas announces that a new rebel Googler has sent nearly 1000 documents on algorithm bias to the DOJ. While we prepare a news story on Zach Vorhies’ revelations, it may be worth asking why one of the world’s largest companies has developed what appears to be the atmosphere of a political cult.

and

Google engineer reveals search engine bias. He found Google pretty neutral in 2014; the bias started with the US 2016 election (Gregory Coppola)

See also: The US 2016 election: Why Big Data failed. In the aftermath, a Democratic pollster considered it “malpractice” to rely more on the machine than on Electoral College numbers. Bill Clinton reportedly threw his phone out a window in frustration over this tendency.


Denyse O'Leary

Denyse O'Leary is a freelance journalist based in Ottawa, Canada. Specializing in faith and science issues, she has published two books on the topic: Faith@Science and By Design or by Chance? She has written for publications such as The Toronto Star, The Globe & Mail, and Canadian Living. She is co-author, with neuroscientist Mario Beauregard, of The Spiritual Brain: A Neuroscientist'€™s Case for the Existence of the Soul. She received her degree in honors English language and literature.

Fast Facts re the Google, Facebook Anti-Trust Probes