The Republican attorney general of Missouri has launched an investigation into Google’s business practices. Josh Hawley wants to know how Google handles user data. And he plans to look into whether Google is using its dominance in the search business to harm companies in other markets where Google competes.
“There is strong reason to believe that Google has not been acting with the best interest of Missourians in mind,” Hawley said in a Monday statement.
It’s another sign of growing pressure Google is facing from the political right. Grassroots conservatives increasingly see Google as falling on the wrong side of the culture wars. So far that hasn’t had a big impact in Washington policymaking. But with Hawley planning to run for the US Senate next year, we could see more Republican hostility toward Google—and perhaps other big technology companies—in the coming years.
Critics say Google has abused its dominance of search
The Hawley investigation will dig into whether Google violated Missouri’s consumer-protection and antitrust laws. Specifically, Hawley will investigate:
- “Google’s collection, use, and disclosure of information about Google users and their online activities,”
- “Google’s alleged misappropriation of online content from the websites of its competitors,” and
- “Google’s alleged manipulation of search results to preference websites owned by Google and to demote websites that compete with Google.”
The second and third points are long-standing concerns of Google competitors, especially Yelp. For years, Yelp has accused Google of giving its own restaurant reviews an artificially high position in search results, to the detriment of dedicated review sites like Yelp and TripAdvisor that have—in Yelp’s view at least—more and better reviews.
The FTC looked into these concerns and decided in 2013 not to launch a major antitrust lawsuit, opting for a settlement that required Google to make fairly minor changes to its business practices.
More recently, the European Commission looked at similar issues and came to the opposite conclusion, handing down a massive $2.7 billion fine in June.
States like Missouri have their own antitrust laws and the power to investigate company business conduct independently of the feds. So Hawley seems to be taking yet another look at those same issues to see if Google’s conduct runs afoul of Missouri law.
Google faces a growing conservative backlash
Traditionally, Democrats favor strict enforcement of consumer protection and antitrust laws, while Republicans favor a more Laissez-faire approach. During the Obama years, Google aligned itself with the Democrats, and it may have helped the company escape serious scrutiny. Republicans weren’t going to push for stronger antitrust enforcement in any event, and Democrats had a natural incentive not to attack a political ally.
But now that Republicans are back in power, Google faces the prospect of populist backlashes from both ends of the political spectrum.
On the left, there’s a growing movement to use antitrust law to rein in the power of big companies. A prominent Google critic was fired from a Google-funded liberal think tank in August after he criticized Google’s business practices. Two well-known liberal senators and possible 2020 presidential candidates, Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren, have repeatedly called for stricter enforcement of antitrust laws.
Meanwhile, Google has faced growing criticism from the right as well. Many conservatives criticized the decision to fire James Damore, a Google engineer who argued that biological differences between men and women might explain why there are so many more men among Google’s engineers. Conservatives also worry that Google’s efforts to crack down on hate speech are leading to censorship of conservative speech more generally.
In short, conservatives increasingly see Silicon Valley executives in the same light as Hollywood celebrities, Wall Street bankers, and the lobbyists on K Street.
However, this hasn’t had much of an impact at the federal level—at least so far. Donald Trump vowed to crack down on big companies on the campaign trail, and early reports suggest he looked for antitrust officials who would carry through that vision. But ultimately he chose veterans of the Bush administration for key antitrust-related posts: dining Delrahim to head the antitrust division of the Justice Department and Joseph Simons as chairman of the Federal Trade Commission. Delrahim and Simons are corporate lawyers who are more likely to continue the business-friendly policies of the Bush administration than launch a populist crusade against big Silicon Valley companies.
Trump’s basic problem was that it was hard to find loyal Republicans who are both knowledgeable about antitrust law and enthusiastic about stricter enforcement against companies like Google. The Republican bench is full of people like Delrahim and Simons—veterans of past Republican administrations that enjoyed friendly relationships with corporate America.
And this is why Hawley’s decision to launch an antitrust case against Google is significant. We don’t know if Hawley will get the Republican nomination or win his challenge to Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.) next year, but people like him will surely be elected to the Senate in the coming decade.
Hawley’s decision to go after Google suggests that he sees some upside in being seen as an antagonist to a company that conservatives increasingly view with suspicion. More than that, it suggests that Hawley believes it’s worth the risk of alienating the GOP’s pro-business wing, which takes a dim view of strict antitrust enforcement even if it targets a company with close ties to Democrats.
The danger for Google, then, is two-fold. First, the next Republican president may be as hostile to Silicon Valley as Trump has been. Even more ominously, the next Republican president is likely to have a much deeper bench of experienced Republican antitrust lawyers who see strict regulation of Google as a legitimate conservative objective.