America’s 50 states may have their differences when it comes to politics, but there’s apparently one issue on which almost every one can agree: distrusting Google. Attorneys general from nearly every state, plus Washington D.C. and Puerto Rico, announced on Monday a sweeping antitrust investigation into Google, focused on the tech giant’s online advertising and search traffic. “There is nothing wrong with a business becoming the biggest game in town if it does so through free market competition, but we have seen evidence that Google’s business practices may have undermined consumer choice, stifled innovation, violated users’ privacy, and put Google in control of the flow and dissemination of online information,” Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton, who’s leading the probe, said in a statement. “We intend to closely follow the facts we discover in this case and proceed as necessary.”
Only Alabama and California will be abstaining from the joint investigation, which was announced Monday with a press conference on the steps of the U.S. Supreme Court. Paxton said the probe will initially target the company’s online advertising business, and state officials have already made legal demands that Google turn over documents related to their online ads. But the A.G. said “the facts will lead where the facts will lead,” and other attorneys general raised additional concerns about how Google ranks search results and handles user data. “We’re here because there’s an absolutely existential threat to our virtual marketplace,” Louisiana Attorney General Jeff Landry said. In a blog post published Friday, Google responded to the U.S. Department of Justice’s antitrust investigation and said they were anticipating the then-impending state probe. “We have always worked constructively with regulators and we will continue to do so,” Kent Walker, Senior Vice President of Global Affairs, wrote. “We look forward to showing how we are investing in innovation, providing services that people want, and engaging in robust and fair competition.
Monday’s announcement comes on the heels of Friday’s news that a smaller group of 11 attorneys general have launched an antitrust investigation into Facebook, led by New York Attorney General Letitia James—and sources cited by the Wall Street Journal say the state efforts could also soon extend to other companies beyond Facebook and Google. “The A.G.s are talking about all of Big Tech. … I’ll say Amazon is on the radar screens of a lot of people but not prepared to announce [anything],” Minnesota Attorney General Keith Ellison told the Washington Post.
The federal government has already been putting Silicon Valley in its antitrust crosshairs, with the Justice Department, Federal Trade Commission, and House Judiciary Committee all launching probes of some sort into the tech sector. The state attorneys general, however, maintain that their investigation will be entirely separate. “The state attorneys general, they are an independent bunch,” Washington D.C. Attorney General Karl Racine said Monday. “And they can be quite tenacious. So I’m very confident that this bipartisan group is going to be led by the facts and not be swayed by any conclusion that may fall short, if you will, if it’s inconsistent with our facts, on the federal side.” And that could be for the best. The FTC has come under fire for recently “punishing” Facebook and Google for their privacy violations with fines that ultimately amount to chump change for the tech behemoths, and a previous FTC antitrust investigation into Google in 2013 was considered a victory for the search giant, who had no major steps taken against them. (The company has fared worse on the other side of the Atlantic, where the European Union fined Google $2.7 billion in 2017, $5 billion in 2018, and $1.7 billion in March for antitrust violations.)
Can the states be more effective at holding the tech industry accountable? Maybe, given the power of their pooled resources. “Simply put, by joining up their resources, they have the ability to bring a big case and seek significant remedies,” former FTC commissioner William Kovacic explained to the Post. Rob McKenna, a former Washington state attorney general, similarly noted that attorneys general “have found they can actually rewrite the rules for entire sectors and individual companies through these cases,” saying that the group has “a lot of power here to achieve regulation by litigation.” And the rare showing of mass bipartisanship could be an important tool in itself—both logistically and as a symbolic indicator of how seriously the government is about taking on Big Tech. “Any time you get that many attorneys general, both Democrats and Republicans, liberal and conservatives all across the ideological spectrum, agreeing that something needs to be done about Google … it speaks volumes,” Arizona Attorney General Mark Brnovich told the Post.
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