Lawsuits, Investigations, and now Wu & Khan & Kanter: With 5 Months to go in the year, Google can’t seem to catch a break—and that’s great news for journalism
2021 is shaping up to be a terrible, horrible, no good, very bad year for Google—and there are five months still to go. From new lawsuits and government investigations to the appointment of Big Tech critics to key antitrust roles, the sprawling tech giant is finding itself sweating under a growing number of very bright lights. Just last month, Google found out that a longtime adversary will soon be heading up antitrust enforcement at the Department of Justice.
At the end of 2020, the Silicon Valley behemoth found itself fending off criticism, investigations, and lawsuits around the world over its anticompetitive practices. Along with other tech giants, Google was pilloried in a landmark report released by the House Judiciary Antitrust Subcommittee, and in the closing weeks of 2020, Google was slapped with three antitrust lawsuits targeting the firm’s dominance over the search engine and digital advertising markets filed by the U.S. Department of Justice and a coalition of attorneys general.
By all accounts, however, 2021 is shaping up to be far worse for Google. Here is a quick round up of all the bad news causing sleepless nights in Mountain View:
- The U.K.’s Competition and Markets Authority (CMA) launched an antitrust investigation of Google’s plan to eliminate third-party cookies on its Chrome browser, which critics worry would greatly disadvantage Google’s at-tech competitors.
- At the end of January, yet another antitrust lawsuit was filed against Google. This time by West Virginia-based news publisher HD Media Group, which alleges an unlawful conspiracy between Google and Facebook to further dominate the digital advertising market.
- President Biden nominated Lina Khan to chair the Federal Trade Commission, which shares responsibility for enforcing federal antitrust laws with the Department of Justice. Khan gained prominence after publishing a law review article, Amazon’s Antitrust Paradox, examining how the dominant approach to antitrust enforcement is poorly suited to address anti-competitive activity in the modern economy.
- President Biden tapped Tim Wu, a prominent law professor and prominent critic of Big Tech’s outsized power, to join the National Economic Council as special assistant to the president for technology and competition policy. Wu has previously called for breaking up Google and Facebook.
- In March, a Texas-led coalition of state attorney generals expanded the scope of their case against Google to specifically include claims about how Google’s plans to phase out third-party cookies on Chrome will have severe consequences for news publishers’ revenue. According to a study produced by Google itself, eliminating third-party cookies would reduce ad revenue for news publishers by an average of 62%.
- In another blow to Google, the Daily Mail filed an antitrust complaint against Google in April over its advertising and search activities, alleging that Google’s “bid rigging scheme” controls the tools for selling ads and ad space on publishers’ pages that ultimately subjects newspapers to see little of the revenue that their content produces. Google’s monopoly generated $46.2 billion in advertising revenue over the last three months of 2020, putting Google’s fourth quarter 2020 ad revenue at roughly the same level as all U.S. newspapers’ ad revenue for 2016, 2017, and 2018 combined.
- Court filings in a case brought against Google by a group of state attorneys general reveal a previously-unknown Google project to leverage its access to publishers’ ad servers to secretly rig advertisement auctions in Google’s favor, essentially stealing money from publishers.
- With bipartisan support, the House Judiciary Committee approved a package of six antirust bills aimed at reining in Google and other Big Tech companies.
- As lobbyists for Google and other Big Tech companies gear up to fight the bipartisan calls for reinvigorated antitrust laws in the House and Senate, FTC nominee Lina Khan is confirmed by a robust 60-28 vote in the Senate—surely an ominous development for Google and other Big Tech giants.
- In order to resolve CMA’s investigation, Google agreed to revise its plans for eliminating third-party cookies on Chrome in coordination with the agency to address concerns about the impact of Google’s plans on its competitors in the digital advertising space.
- European Union antitrust regulators launched a formal antitrust investigation of how Google uses its incredible market power at every stage of the digital advertising process to favor its own ad-tech offerings and push out rivals. The U.S. Department of Justice is reportedly pushing ahead with its own investigation of Google’s digital ad market practices, which was initiated during the Trump Administration.
- At the end of June, Google blinked and announced that it would delay FLoC—which would have upended the digital advertising market and harmed news publishers by abruptly ending third-party cookies—for an additional two years.
- French antitrust regulators announced that Google would be fined €500 million for failing to negotiate “in good faith” with news publishers. In 2020, as part of the first attempt to apply a new EU copyright directive, French authorities ordered Google to negotiate a licensing deal with news publishers in order to excerpt “short blurbs” from news articles in Google search results.
- To the elation of progressives in Congress, who have been calling for his appointment alongside Lina Khan and Tim Wu, President Biden nominates another Big Tech critic, Jonathan Kanter, to a key antitrust position. Kanter, once confirmed, will head up antitrust enforcement at the Department of Justice. He is well-known as an advocate for more aggressive antitrust enforcement and has gained prominence representing Yelp and other companies harmed by Google’s anti-competitive practices.
With five months left in 2021, one thing is for certain: the pressure on Google to end anticompetitive practices is certain to continue (if not accelerate) in the months and years ahead. Indeed, for Google and the other Big Tech giants, when it rains, it pours—Apple, Amazon, Facebook, and Google are now defending at least 70 antitrust probes and court cases, up from 17 only two years ago.