Here are the unlikely crusaders fighting to curb Google’s power
Google can’t seem to please anyone these days.
In a fiercely divided political climate, the search giant has unwittingly aligned a growing chorus of politically diverse voices who all agree on one thing: that Google has way too much power.
On one front, Google is a prime target of a growing progressive movement to tighten anti-monopoly laws they argue aren’t equipped to govern a new era of tech giants.
Meanwhile, it’s also angered parts of the American right with its decision to fire an employee who circulated a sexist memo criticizing the company’s diversity hiring policy.
Rather than draw praise from liberals, the episode only called attention to Google’s lack of diversity and an ongoing Labor Department probe accusing it of maintaining an “extreme” systemic wage gap.
Burgeoning populist movements on both sides of the aisle have talked of turning the company into a public utility, meaning that the government would treat it like a phone line or water authority with much more restrictions than a normal private company.
And after years of antitrust feints, regulators signalled they might be serious about cracking down on the company when the European Union hit Google with its biggest anti-competition fine ever this summer. To Google’s critics, it was a clear sign of blood in the water.
Here are some of the various actors working to clip Google’s wings:
Yelp might be in the business of online restaurant reviews, but it maintains an impressive side operation in a much different field: antitrust litigation.
The restaurant data hub has been on a six-year crusade to urge governments across three continents to reign in Google’s power. And for a comparatively small tech company, it’s managed to box above its weight class.
The restaurant data hub has been on a six-year crusade to urge governments across three continents to reign in Google’s power.
Yelp has long been dependent on Google for up to three quarters of its traffic, which comes from Google’s search engine. But Google has its own restaurant ratings feature that it obviously has an incentive to list above Yelp listings in its results pages.
Yelp’s contention is that Google’s doing so constitutes an abuse of its market power.
But Google has often maintained that streamlining information and features into its own domain makes for a cleaner experience for its users. Nobody really wants to deal with the load times of outside sites or scroll through more than a few results to find what they need.
Dozens of smaller sites have similarly suffered from Google’s search result consolidation efforts, and bigger companies like Microsoft and Oracle have joined the antitrust fight too.
But Yelp, which has filed lawsuit after lawsuit making its case, remains perhaps the most outspoken proponent.
Its persistence has helped to inspire several government antitrust probes throughout the years, including one in which the Federal Trade Commission concluded that Google “used anticompetitive tactics and abused its monopoly power,” according to documents leaked years after the fact. Yet that investigation was ultimately shut down in 2013.
The real break for Google’s opponents didn’t come until the EU awarded its record fine in June. While that particular ruling didn’t have much bearing on Yelp’s business, the company was among the litigants that pressured the government body to act.
Yelp most recently accused Google of breaking the terms of an earlier FTC agreement, lodging a complaint in a letter to the agency last week.
Formed as an anything-goes alt-right alternative to Twitter, Gab launched its war against Google after the search giant removed its app from its Play store last month.
The removal came as tech platforms were frantically cutting ties with any media company deemed to promote hate speech in the wake of violence at a white supremacist demonstration in Charlottesville.
Google claimed Gab violated its developer policies by failing to demonstrate “a sufficient level of moderation, including for content that encourages violence and advocates hate against groups of people.”
This is war. https://t.co/N14Z9jSAIF
— Gab (@getongab) August 17, 2017
Gab hit back with a lawsuit last week that, for all the social network’s showboating political agitation, makes some strong points about antitrust. For one, Google’s decision to shut out Gab was effectively a case of one platform kneecapping a rival platform, however lopsided their competition.
That may not mean much on its own, but Gab goes on to trace a history of Google taking questionable action against businesses with conflicting interests through its app store. Google has repeatedly lashed out at ad blocking apps that interfere with its own ad business as well as apps that contain competing app stores to Google’s own.
Google’s decision to shut out Gab was effectively a case of one platform kneecapping a rival platform
Gab furthermore argues that Google’s standard for sufficient moderation is nebulous and subjective. If Google holds apps accountable for content users post within them, Gab’s lawyers say, then why does Google allow companies like Twitter and Reddit to remain in the store?
All of these choices are Google’s prerogative as a private platform, of course. But if a regulator were to decided that they were instances of Google exploiting its hold on the app market to unfairly undermine competitors at the expense of consumer welfare, there could easily be legal consequences.
A Google spokesperson countered that app removals for policy violations are nothing unusual, and Apple’s App Store banned Gab for similar reasons. The company also pointed out that Gab hasn’t taken any steps to appeal the decision through Google’s designated channels.
Google was once again hit with unwelcome monopoly headlines this month when the New York Times reported that complaints from Alphabet CEO Eric Schmidt coincided with the firing of several prominent antitrust scholars from a Google-funded think tank called New America.
Formerly known as the Open Markets program, the newly independent team has been on the front lines of the push for stricter antitrust regulation for years. Their termination came just as politicians had begun to take notice.
Google financed law center pays Google lawyer to explain criticism of Google. Good times. https://t.co/dA4YhwG6Uf
— Matt Stoller (@matthewstoller) September 15, 2017
The school of thought to which the team belongs argues that the narrow way in which antitrust laws have been interpreted in the last four decades won’t adequately protect our economy against the oligopolies of the future, like Amazon, Google, and Facebook.
The Times traces the final straw that led to their dismissal to a note they posted to the think tank’s site cheering the EU’s decision to fine Google.
Google, of course, maintains that it had nothing to do with the decision and that it respects the “independence, personnel decisions and policy perspectives” of each group it funds. New America also denied that it was influenced by Google.
This post has been updated to include an additional statement from a Google spokesperson.