Over the last few weeks, conservatives railed against Google and other big tech companies for their left-wing bias. This has led to a many–including Ann Coulter, Steve Bannon, and Tucker Carlson–to advocate regulate Google as a natural monopoly. While Google should not face antitrust scrutiny from Republicans because of its liberal political positions, it also shouldn’t receive a free pass for anti-competitive conduct by the Democrats for the same reason. In fact, Google’s strong ties with the Obama administration may have prompted the Federal Trade Commission to drop an investigation into search result manipulation in 2012. Republicans do not owe Google special treatment, and should revisit the investigation into the monopoly’s manipulation of its search results.
Last month, Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer issued a detailed platform, the “Better Deal,” which outlines the Democratic leadership’s economic policies. The 1800 word antitrust section is titled “Cracking Down on Corporate Monopolies and the Abuse of Economic and Political Power.” It specifically singles out the food, beer, and eyeglass industry, but does not even mention any of massive internet monopolies. While progressives are ostensibly against corporate power, the New York Times now runs op-eds with headlines like “The Moral Voice of Corporate America,” praising internet monopolies for censoring the Right and obstructing the President’s agenda.
By taking a strong stand against abuses by Big Tech’s abuses, Trump and the GOP can expose the Democrats as phony populists. Why is Schumer singling out beer and eyeglass companies, while ignoring behemoths like Google? Most likely because his party benefits from Google’s “abuse of economic and political power.” According to the New York Times, “few companies have been as intimately tied to the Democratic Party in recent years as Google.” Its employees met with the Obama White House an average of once a week. Google Chairman Eric Schmidt served as an advisor to Obama and Clinton and over 50 Google employees and lobbyists joined the Obama administration. Schmidt went on to fund “The Groundwork,” a data company which supported Hillary Clinton’s campaign and now calls itself part of “The Resistance.”
Coincidentally, the Obama administration treated Google with kid gloves. In 2012, the FTC’s Bureau of Competition concluded that Google’s “conduct has resulted—and will result—in real harm to consumers and to innovation in the online search and advertising markets,” in a private report, which was inadvertently disclosed in 2015. However, the politically appointed commissioners ignored their own staff’s recommendations and let Google off with virtually no sanctions. At the time, Senate Antitrust Subcommittee chairman Mike Lee (R-UT) suggested he would hold hearings on communications between Google, the White House, and the FTC.
Lee never held these hearings, and, in fact, the Antitrust Subcommittee has held no hearings this year. With an administration which is not beholden to Google, a good start for Congress would be to both look into the White House interference in the FTC’s investigation and consider reopening it. This is especially timely after the E.U.’s €2.4 billion fine against Google for using its monopoly in search to favor its own comparison shopping.
The E.U.’s findings mirrors Lee’s past concerns that “Google is using its search dominance to favor its own offerings at the expense of competition” which would deny its competitors “resources needed to develop more innovative content and offer better services to customers.” Indeed, when the E.U. began its investigation of Google, Lee praised it for addressing the “problematic practices” he had identified and reiterated the need for the FTC to investigate the company.
With Obama out of office, the FTC finally has an opportunity to revisit the investigation of Google’s search manipulation without political interference. Republicans in Congress need to make sure the FTC thoroughly and impartially investigates this left-wing monopoly.
Luke Schwartz is an attorney practicing appellate and regulatory law in Washington, DC.