On Monday, November 13, 2017, Missouri’s attorney general, Josh Hawley, launched an investigation into Google’s handling of its consumer’s data, and whether it manipulated search results to favor its own products. The investigation will focus on three issues, according to Mr. Hawley:
- Scope – the depth and breadth of Google’s data collection;
- Abuse of market position; and
- Use of competitor content as its own in search results
Some may argue that this move by Hawley is merely an attempt for free publicity ahead of his recently announced bid to challenge Democrat U.S. Senator Claire McCaskill for her Senate seat in 2018. Hawley, a Republican, drew immediate praise from Breitbart, the conservative website founded by former White House Strategist, Steve Bannon, following the announcement of the campaign. The attorney general contends, however, that the Google investigation follows the recent $2.7 billion fine levied against Google in June by the European Union. Hawley is concerned that Google is engaging in similar behavior in the United States.
This may be only the beginning of increased antitrust scrutiny against Google and the other big tech giants. As Washington starts to take a harder look at big tech’s practices, especially in light of Russia’s meddling with the 2016 U.S. election, regulatory oversight may increase across the board. The U.S. federal government has remained largely silent thus far, but in the past, it’s noteworthy that it did take a state attorney general (from Texas) to investigate Microsoft’s anticompetitive practices in the late 1990s before other states and eventually the Department of Justice joined the investigation.
Perhaps this is only the first of many antitrust lawsuits against Google, Facebook, Apple, and others. Alternatively, it may simply be a publicity stunt by Missouri’s zealous attorney general. Regardless, it’s safe to say that the times are changing for big tech in Washington D.C. What used to be a cozy, almost crony, relationship, especially during the Obama years, has started to grow more contentious. Better lawyer up.