Google must feel a bit like a punching bag these days. Blows are raining down on it from all sides and angles. If it isn’t in the EU’s doghouse, it’s feeling the heat from the Feds in the US. For years, under Obama and the Democrats, with whom Google was quite cozy, it escaped scrutiny. Now that the Republicans are the new sheriffs in town, and the out-of-power Democrats are looking to score political points, Google is feeling the heat. The latest headache may be a harbinger of more worries for the company, with a state government entering the fray.
The state of Missouri is the latest to pile on the tech titan. States have regulatory bodies to which companies must answer. The only thing worse than having a state’s Attorney General poking at your dealings is an Attorney General with a political agenda who aspires to higher political office.
This is the case with the Missouri Attorney General, Josh Hawley, who has one eye on Google and one eye on a US Senate seat. He is launching an investigation into Google’s consumer protection policies and possible anti-trust violations. 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”
- “Google’s alleged manipulation of search results to preference websites owned by Google and to demote websites that compete with Google”
Much like in Europe, where it was hammered with a $2.7 billion fine, Google is accused of giving preferential treatment – artificially high positions – in the form of ad placement and restaurant reviews to the detriment of sites like Yelp and TripAdvisor. Back in 2013, while the tech giant was ensconced in the womb of the friendly Obama administration, the Federal Trade Commission declined to vigorously prosecute it. Not coincidentally, Google’s then-Chairman, Eric Schmidt, personally and financially endeared himself to Obama and was part of his inner circle of advisors.
Now that the political left is out of power in DC, it has turned its guns back on big companies, just as it used to before it got distracted by the romance between Google and Obama. Democratic presidential hopefuls in 2020, Senators Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren are out for scalps. In addition, there is growing angst from the right of the political spectrum.
Conservatives increasingly view Silicon Valley executives in the same light as Hollywood celebrities, Wall Street bankers, and DC lobbyists, which is to say, not lovingly. They see the latest attempts by these companies to rein in free speech as efforts to stifle right-wing speech. And remember Donald Trump’s presidential candidacy? He famously vowed to crack down on big companies on the campaign trail, and it appears that he is eyeing folks for his administration who will do just that.
This is certainly not good news for the likes of Google and its ilk. Hawley and Missouri are ahead of the Washington GOP in the regulatory game, which means that Google should be doubly worried. Hawley’s decision to go after Google suggests that he sees plenty of political capital coming his way in being seen as an antagonist to a company that conservatives view dimly. Google apparently hasn’t regained its standing from its Obama swoon and is therefore not a favorite of the usual pro-business, pro-big corporation Republicans.
It’s quite a prickly predicament for Google when you look at the political landscape of the next few years. On one hand, if the Republicans prevail in 2020, the Trump administration will have had time to build a solid anti-trust team to go after the likes of Google. On the other, a victory by the anti-trust advocating, liberal-leaning Democrats, led by Sanders and Warren, will hardly be a bed of roses for Google either. And, of course, the EU still appears to be gunning for anything American.
However, first things first. Missouri and its Attorney General, Hawley, may get the first crack as Google finds itself in this uniquely precarious and uncomfortable political position.
Opinions are the writer’s own.