Last month we noted how Bill Barr was rushing DOJ staffers (much to their chagrin) to launch his “antitrust inquiry” into Google. Why? Three reasons. One, it helps Trump allies and Google adversaries like “big telecom,” Oracle, and Rupert Murdoch. Two, it helps put the utterly false narrative of “social media unfairly censors Conservatives” into headlines during an election. And three, it creates leverage over companies that have finally just begun to take online hate speech and disinformation (a cornerstone of Trumpism) seriously. Genuine concerns about “monopoly power” are the last thing on these folks’ minds.
Right on cue, Bill Barr this morning announced that the Department of Justice is suing Google, claiming that the company’s anticompetitive practices in arenas such as search “have had harmful effects on competition and consumers.” The initial press release compares Google’s dominance to historical natural monopolies of note, such as 80’s era AT&T:
“The antitrust laws protect our free market economy and forbid monopolists from engaging in anticompetitive practices. They also empower the Department of Justice to bring cases like this one to remedy violations and restore competition, as it has done for over a century in notable cases involving monopolists over other critical industries undergirding the American economy like Standard Oil and the AT&T telephone monopoly. Decades ago the Department’s case against Microsoft recognized that the antitrust laws forbid anticompetitive agreements by high-technology monopolists to require preinstalled default status, to shut off distribution channels to rivals, and to make software undeletable. The Complaint alleges that Google is using similar agreements itself to maintain and extend its own dominance.”
You’re to ignore, of course, that this is the same Bill Barr DOJ and Trump administration that has rubber stamped every last fleeting whim of natural telecom monopolies, which, unlike search, leave consumers trapped in punitive, expensive relationships they simply cannot opt out of. The DOJ’s announcement was launched in cooperation (surely entirely coincidentally) with a handful of GOP states, apparently because many other states — many of which are pursuing their own inquiries into legitimate problems at Google — didn’t think much of Billy Barr’s rushed effort.
Many lawyers don’t think much of the effort either, noting that the rushed complaint is, as you might expect, filled with odd misses and whiffs. Like here, where the DOJ attempts to claim that Google’s efforts to reduce smartphone and device bloatware imposed by wireless carriers is something that should be illegal:
“Google harshly stopping carrier bloatware should be illegal” is, again, not the best argument for DOJ. This whole thing feels like a missed opportunity. pic.twitter.com/dhifJ67seC
— nilay patel (@reckless) October 20, 2020
Others were quick to note that Google’s effectively being lambasted by Barr’s DOJ because its search engine — which, unlike telecom, consumers can choose not to use — is extremely popular:
This is lunacy. Trademark genericide – which is what this paragraph of the complaint describes – cuts AGAINST the antitrust argument because IT MEANS OTHER PEOPLE ARE OFFERING THE SAME PRODUCT/SERVICE AND YOU ARE THEREFORE NOT A MONOPOLY. https://t.co/juJCiO3TIr
— Cathy Gellis (@CathyGellis) October 20, 2020
Again, that’s because this is being driven by cronyism and election season politics, not a serious concern about monopoly power. Worse, while the DOJ’s announcement will be applauded by many good faith folks eager to see Google’s power knocked down a peg, tackling Google’s domination in a politicized, half-assed fashion is more likely to harm than help efforts to hold Google accountable for much of anything. The DOJ of course wants to have its cake and eat it too, providing Trump with election season fodder while breathlessly insisting that’s not what’s happening here:
“So, I think it’s fair to say, this case has nothing to do with that subject,” [Deputy Attorney General Jeffrey] Rosen said. “This is an antitrust case about competitive conditions in the marketplace, and as I said earlier, it’s been a matter of nonpartisan, bipartisan, kind of across-the-board interest.”
To be very clear there’s plenty of things Google does (especially on the advertising end) that can be deemed anticompetitive, inconsistent, and infuriating, many of which could use a serious good faith inquiry. But folks like Bill Barr and the GOP mainstays applauding this inquiry don’t genuinely care about monopoly power. They simply don’t. The DOJ (under both parties) pretty consistently doesn’t either:
As you gear up for the #antitrust complaint DOJ is said to be bringing against Google today, recall DOJ’s own statistics show that it didn’t bring even a single case for alleged abuse of #monopoly power in 2019, 2018, 2017, 2016, 2015, 2014, 2013, 2012, or 2010. 2011 had one. pic.twitter.com/6zupbmciJk
— Avery Gardiner (@AveryWGardiner) October 20, 2020
The one example usually trotted out to suggest otherwise, AT&T’s lawsuit to stop the AT&T Time Warner merger, was more about pissing off CNN for Trump and helping Rupert Murdoch (who wanted the deal blocked after Time Warner first rebuffed his merger affections in 2014, and AT&T rejected his offer to buy CNN twice in 2017) than any serious concern about media consolidation. Mindless rubber stamping of megamergers and flimsy antitrust enforcement is what the United States does. It’s our biggest pastime outside of baseball.
Despite what folks like Josh Hawley and Ted Cruz would have you believe, there’s no evidence that monopoly power has ever been a genuine concern for the modern Trump GOP (simply look at its treatment of telecom, airlines, banks, and countless other heavily consolidated and monopolized sectors that routinely churn out a steady stream of consumer and competitor nightmares). And yet folks who’ve built entire careers on the backs of not giving a flying shit about corporate power, consolidation, and monopolization will now get to spend two weeks before an election pretending otherwise:
Sen Ted Cruz on CNBC this morning: "In my view, I think the Department of Justice is going to prevail in this case. I think Google is a monopoly, and I think they have been abusing their monopoly power. And I think it's a pattern we've seen across big tech. /1
— Leah AntiTrustButVer1fy Nylen (@leah_nylen) October 20, 2020
Why look at all the very serious, good faith, anti-monopolists just super and genuinely concerned about mindless consolidation and corporate power:
Big Tech’s out to get conservatives.
Attorney General Barr won’t let them get away with it. https://t.co/oCzLCzM0LK
— Rep. Jim Jordan (@Jim_Jordan) October 20, 2020
Again, reporting indicates that while there may have been some kernels of good faith intention at the heart of the inquiry, Barr quickly got to work politicizing the effort and rushing it against the wishes of staff so it could be used as election season fodder. Trampling the law and government integrity for his authoritarian boss is what Bill Barr does. It’s unclear how many examples are needed for the message to get through. He no longer enjoys the benefit of the doubt.
It’s a lot like the sordid TikTok affair, which had more to do with cronyism (Oracle) and amplifying xenophobia than any genuine concern about consumer privacy or internet security. Bill Barr’s inquiry is politicized bad faith bullshit dressed up as serious adult policy making, and it’s relatively astonishing how many folks (including both of the country’s biggest cable news outlets and numerous tech reporters) literally can’t tell the difference, or include even the faintest hint of context that the investigation may not be entirely on the up and up.