Taking on Google, the biggest monopoly the world has ever seen, is no small task, but 50 state attorneys general are making the effort, having launched an antitrust investigation in September 20191 that will reportedly be expanded to include Google’s search and Android businesses as well.2
The probe, led by Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton, initially focused on the company’s advertising arm and its use of consumer data, but as noted by Recode editor-at-large Kara Swisher in the November 14, 2019, CNBC interview above, it’s virtually impossible to look at Google’s advertising business without entering into search and Android as well, since everything the company does is interconnected.
“You’re going to see a lot of action everywhere, sort of coalescing around the same things, because some of these problems can be met with regulation, some of them with fines, some of them with antitrust action and some of them with breakup.
But this is the beginning phase of investigation, and you have to look at search and Android if you’re going to look at advertising when it comes to Google and Facebook and other companies,” Swisher says.
The legal sidebar document, “Regulating Big Tech: Legal Implications,”3 issued by the Congressional Research Service in September 2019, lists a number of proposed policy changes and what they would accomplish from a legal standpoint.
Google Moves Into Banking
Who knows, the attorneys’ general investigation may need to expand even further, as Google is branching into banking as well. Through a partnership with Citigroup and a San Francisco University credit union, the company is planning to offer checking accounts tied to Google Pay sometime in 2020. As reported by CBS News November 13, 2019:4
“Google’s move into checking comes at a time when other Big Tech companies like Apple and Facebook are looking to dive deeper into consumer banking and financial services.
It’s also happening at a time when consumer watchdogs and lawmakers increasingly warn that those same companies are getting too large and may have too much control over Americans’ personal data.
‘When competition expands that’s a good thing,’ said Mike Moebs, a financial services consultant who specializes in bank accounts … ‘Big question that it raises is will Google share that data, and that is a big privacy concern,’ Moebs said …
Checking accounts could offer Google plenty of new consumer data, including how much people are paid, how much they spend and where and when they spend.”
When asked for a comment on Google’s expansion into checking accounts, Swisher says, “They just keep going. That’s the thing about these companies … they need growth, and the areas that are big are finance and health care, and you see [them] move into both of these areas in a strong way.”
Google Files for Order of Protection
According to CNBC,5 “States can be more aggressive in antitrust investigations than federal regulators, because they are less constrained by the lobbying and political forces that consume Washington, D.C.” That said, Google is also under investigation by the U.S. Justice Department.
Whether any of these probes will lead to significant changes remain to be seen, however. Previous U.S. investigations have fizzled and been dropped.6 The European Union has taken a far stronger stance against the monopoly thus far, issuing a $5 billion fine in July 2018 for Android antitrust abuse.7
Google was ordered to cease favoring its own company by forcing Android manufacturers to exclusively pre-install the devices with a suite of Google apps. In 2017, the EU also fined Google $2.7 billion for unfairly favoring its own shopping service over its competitors.8 According to CNBC:9
“With that track record, the attorneys general investigating Google likely already have a broad vision of the case they wish to pursue against Google.
They will use their CID [civil investigative demand] requests to seek materials like emails and strategy documents to support that view, while looking for evidence of clear anti-competitive behavior. The requests can be a means of filling in holes in evidence, or a tactic to build up pressure on a company in hopes of forcing a settlement.”
Personally, I doubt fines will ever set Google on the right path. It’s so big, even fines in the billions of dollars end up being too small to act as a deterrent. The company can make up for such losses in too short a time.
As reported by CNBC,10,11 Google is also trying to block access to certain information, having filed an order of protection against Texas CIDs requesting information the company deems confidential. In its filing, Google claims two consultants hired by the attorney general have working relationships with competitors, and might misuse the information.
Internet Companies Seek Protection in Trade Agreements
Google and other Big Tech companies are also pursuing legal protection via various free trade agreements. As reported by the Los Angeles Times October 16, 2019:12
“A bipartisan group of lawmakers is stepping up efforts to have U.S. trade officials eliminate a legal liability shield that tech companies are pushing to keep in new agreements, including a deal to replace the North American Free Trade Agreement awaiting approval by Congress …
The lawmakers … were examining whether tech giants should continue to benefit from Section 230 of the 1996 Communications Decency Act, which provides internet platforms liability protection for user-generated content.
Online platforms such as Google and Facebook Inc. prize the provision of U.S. law, and their trade groups are also pushing for the extension of similar protections internationally that would unify policy among countries in trade deals such as the pact to replace NAFTA and a proposal for a deal with Japan …
But Democratic Rep. Jan Schakowsky of Illinois, chairwoman of the Consumer Protection and Commerce Subcommittee, told reporters … that language similar to Section 230 has no place in a trade agreement.
‘It is a uniquely American law, and we’re in the midst of a discussion about it, and this is a gift to Big Tech to insert it into trade agreements,’ Schakowsky said …
The hearing comes amid growing skepticism among lawmakers about whether social media companies should keep the legal protection as a part of U.S. law as they struggle to stem drug and gun sales and offensive content on their platforms.
Tech companies value the measure because it saves them from having to review users’ posts before they’re published online and then shields them from lawsuits if that content turns out to be problematic, which critics say allows the companies to avoid taking responsibility for dangerous and illegal content.
Yet the companies emphasized that the law also can protect their moves to remove violence and misinformation, which they say is needed to police their online spaces.”
The Problem With Global Expansion of Section 230
The main reason Big Tech wants to insert privileges mirroring those of Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act into all future trade deals is to shield them from foreign regulators, The New York Times says, noting that:13
“Europe has enacted tough policies to curb the behavior of companies like Facebook and Google and passed laws to deal with privacy, hate speech and disinformation. China has largely cordoned itself off from the rest of the internet, allowing Beijing to censor political content and bolster Chinese tech companies like Alibaba and Tencent.
In India, Indonesia, Russia and Vietnam, governments are introducing regulations to ostensibly protect their citizens’ privacy and build domestic internet industries that critics say will stymie the ability of American companies to provide services in those countries. The United States wants its more permissive rules to form the basis for worldwide regulation.”
American legislators have become increasingly critical of Section 230 in light of Google and other internet platforms’ apparent political biases and ability to hinder the free flow of information from both sides of the political aisle.
To be clear, a primary problem with Section 230 — and its expansion globally through trade agreements — is that it allows Google, YouTube and Facebook to filter out and essentially censor whatever they want while still qualifying as a platform rather than a curator of content. As reported by R Street:14
“By clarifying that platforms are not the publisher or speaker of user-generated content, the law allows platforms to moderate user content that serves to harass or stifle the speech of others while giving them the flexibility to leave up potentially controversial but legitimate posts without fear that they will be sued.”
In short, the law facilitates Google’s bias, and its hiding of bias. That said, Section 230 is also in large part what allows for true free speech online, as illustrated in a July 2019 Reason article,15 and its elimination would make online discussions far riskier, from a legal standpoint, for everyone. As noted by Reason:16
“Section 230 stipulates, in essence, that digital services or platforms and their users are not one and the same and thus shouldn’t automatically be held legally liable for each other’s speech and conduct …
Without it, they would face extraordinary legal liability. A world without Section 230 could sink all but the biggest companies, or force them to severely curtail the speech of their users in order to avoid legal trouble.”
Do a Google Detox
Clearly, these are complex issues with no clear and simple answers. While some view Section 230 as a gift to Big Tech, others argue that its removal would impact smaller platforms to a far greater degree than Google, and would stifle free exchange of opinions for fear of liability for offensive content posted by users.
Whatever happens, if you care about your privacy and unbiased access to information, especially health information, you’d be wise to minimize your Google footprint by ditching its services. Suggestions on how to minimize Google’s influence over your life include:
- Stop using Google search — Options include Qwant,17 DuckDuckGo18 and Startpage19
- Stop using Chrome — Use Brave as an alternative browser. It is based on the same software, chromium, so it is easy to switch your favorites and bookmarks over, but it preserves your privacy
- Stop using Gmail — ProtonMail,20 which provides end-to-end encryption and less spam, is an excellent option
- Switch from an Android phone (powered by Google) to an iPhone — While not perfect, iPhone is slightly better of the two in terms of privacy protections
There are alternatives for most if not all Google products, and by using these other companies, we can help them grow so that Google becomes less and less relevant. Also, stop using Google docs (Digital Trends has published an article suggesting a number of alternatives21) and if you’re a high school student, do not convert the Google accounts you created as a student into personal accounts.