written by Timothy B. Lee for Ars Technica
Antitrust sentiment grows, so does skepticism about Google on both the left and the right.
A growing number of liberal thinkers believes that the concentration of corporate power was a major problem in the American economy. And few companies exemplify that concentration more than Google. Conservative skepticism of Google has only intensified in 2017. The high-profile August firing of James Damore was one key moment here. The former employee argued that Google was becoming an “ideological echo chamber” where right-of-center views weren’t welcome.
Eight years ago, Google was on top of the world. People across the political spectrum saw the search giant as a symbol of high-tech innovation. During the just-completed 2008 presidential campaign cycle, candidates as diverse as Ron Paul, John McCain, and Barack Obama had all made pilgrimages to Google’s Mountain View headquarters to burnish their reputations for tech savvy.
Even better, Google soon had a close relationship to the newly elected president, Barack Obama. “Google was riding high on the fact that Eric Schmidt was campaigning for Obama,” said Siva Vaidhyanathan, a media studies professor at the University of Virginia and a longtime Google critic. “There was a lot of attention paid in the press to the fact that Googlers were starting to work in the White House.”
With so many Googlers in government, Google had an outsized influence on policymaking during the Obama years. But today, Google is in a different situation. Most obviously, Schmidt worked hard to get Hillary Clinton elected president, and Clinton lost.
The issues don’t end there. Given Silicon Valley’s liberal views on social issues and Schmidt’s love for Democratic politicians, it was probably inevitable that conservatives would sour on the search giant. But the larger problem for the search giant is that the company has been losing support among Democrats as well.
A growing number of liberal thinkers believes that the concentration of corporate power was a major problem in the American economy. And few companies exemplify that concentration more than Google.
That’s the real significance of this week’s decision by the New America Foundation, a think tank that’s heavily funded by Google, to fire the head of its Open Markets project. For the last eight years, the Open Markets team has been methodically building the intellectual case for more aggressive enforcement of antitrust laws—a project that could easily result in more regulatory scrutiny of Google.
Google is in no immediate danger on that front. Republicans are still largely committed to a hands-off approach to economic regulation, Democrats are out of power, and Google still has plenty of allies in the Democratic Party.
But the longer-term trajectory here could be ominous. The combination of Bernie Sanders-style populism on the left and Donald Trump-style populism on the right could lead to a future where Google faces hostility from policymakers across parties.
“There’s been a really big breakthrough,” says Barry Lynn, who led New America’s Open Markets team before New America fired him. “It’s not just the left. Interest in dealing with concentration of power, the fear of concentration of power is across the spectrum.”
Conservatives are increasingly hostile to Google
Conservative skepticism of Google goes back to the early years of the Obama administration. At the time, Vaidhyanathan was working on a book, criticizing Google, that came out in 2011. While promoting the book, he said, he kept getting invited on talk radio—what he describes as “angry white guy shows.”
“For a couple of weeks they were really interested in Google and their relationship with Obama,” Vaidhyanathan told Ars. “And it turned out that Glenn Beck had done one of his chalk board drawings connecting George Soros to Eric Schmidt and Sergey Brin.”
Vaidhyanathan is generally a Google critic, but he found himself in the unusual position of defending Google against unfounded conspiracy theories. Still, there really was a close relationship between Google and the Obama White House. And that relationship—and Schmidt’s subsequent support for Hillary Clinton—started to drive a wedge between Google and grassroots conservatives.
Conservative skepticism of Google has only intensified in 2017. The high-profile August firing of James Damore was one key moment here. Damore wrote a controversial memo suggesting that Google’s gender gap might be explained by women having less interest in or aptitude for software engineering, and the former employee argued that Google was becoming an “ideological echo chamber” where right-of-center views weren’t welcome.
When Google terminated Damore, many conservatives argued that Google proved Damore’s point. Conservative critics believed that Damore’s arguments should have been taken seriously within Google and that Google was essentially signalling that conservative viewpoints were not welcome at Mountain View.
Another flashpoint came later in the month, when Google canceled the domain name of the neo-Nazi site the Daily Stormer and booted a right-wing Twitter competitor called Gab from the Android app store. While few conservatives have sympathy for Nazis, conservatives worry that similar reasoning could lead to censorship by Google and other technology giants of more mainstream speech.
That has led to the unusual spectacle of conservatives calling for government regulation of a major American company. “Since it has the power to censor the Internet, Google should be regulated like the public utility it is, to make sure it doesn’t further distort the free flow of information to the rest of us,” Fox News host Tucker Carlson argued.
“The evidence of Silicon Valley’s hostility to the Right is everywhere,” wrote Jeremy Carl, a researcher at the conservative Hoover Institution. Like Carlson, Carl made the case for treating Google and other Silicon Valley companies like public utilities.
To be clear, this is still very much a minority view on the right. Most conservative policy experts still favor the deregulatory point of view Republicans have advocated since the Reagan years.
Frank Pasquale, a legal scholar at the University of Maryland, points out that, despite using some anti-monopoly rhetoric on the campaign trail, Donald Trump has relied more on orthodox free-market conservatives in the White House. Former Federal Trade Commissioner Josh Wright, a skeptic of strict antitrust enforcement, served on the Trump transition team. And Trump’s choice to lead the antitrust division of the Justice Department, Makan Delrahim, is expected to enforce antitrust law less aggressively than his Obama administration predecessors. While candidate Trump sometimes hinted he would declare war on major technology companies, there has been no sign so far that he’s going to follow through on those promises.
But over the longer term, political rhetoric has a way of transforming into political action. If hostility toward Google and other Silicon Valley giants becomes widespread among conservatives, sooner or later Republican politicians will find ways to capitalize on that. The next Republican president might campaign on the same kind of anti-monopoly rhetoric Trump did but actually follow through with it in office.
Liberals are getting worried about monopolies
Traditionally, the Democrats have been the party that cared more about concentrations of corporate power. But under the Obama years, Google used its considerable influence to discourage aggressive investigations into its business practices.
Yelp CEO Jeremy Stoppelman has long argued that Google has used its power in the search business to give itself an unfair advantage in markets like online reviews. But in a June interview, he told me that his arguments often fell on deaf ears when he talked to regulators during the Obama years.
“We went around and talked to Federal Trade Commissioners back then,” Stoppelman said. “It was comical. Google had been talking to them and repeating their messages for so long that we’d go from FTC commissioner to FTC commissioner and they’d repeat to us the same lines. They were all Google lines.”
A key moment came in 2012, when staffers at the FTC recommended bringing a lawsuit against Google to challenge some of the search giant’s business practices. They were overruled by the FTC’s commissioners, who voted unanimously not to pursue charges against Google.
EU regulators subsequently considered a similar set of charges and reached the opposite conclusion, handing down a $2.7 billion fine in 2017. And there are signs that Democratic politicians are increasingly interested in pursuing similar policies here in the United States.
A key figure here is Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), who gave the keynote address at a 2016 conference organized by Lynn.
“Google, Apple, and Amazon provide platforms that lots of companies depend on for survival,” Warren said. “But Google, Apple, and Amazon also in many cases compete with those small companies. So that platform can become a tool to snuff out competition.”
Warren specifically pointed to that 2012 FTC staff report recommending action against Google for anticompetitive practices.
The alarming thing about this for Google, of course, is that Warren is often mentioned as a potential presidential candidate in 2020. And there are signs that the Democratic party as a whole is moving in this direction. Bernie Sanders, who made opposition to large corporations a centerpiece of his campaign, nearly captured the 2016 Democratic nomination in 2016 and could be a front-runner if he ran again in 2020.
More broadly, the idea that monopolies are a major problem with the economy has been gaining currency among left-of-center thinkers.
“Within the last two years, we’ve seen this whole change in attitudes toward concentration of power,” Lynn told Ars. After a decade of writing about these issues in relative obscurity, he says, his ideas suddenly started to be taken seriously by a wide range of liberal intellectuals and Democratic insiders.
Google still has a lot of influence in Washington
While Google has more to worry about than it did a few years ago, the company also continues to have a lot of clout inside the beltway. The company has been savvy about supporting think tanks across the political spectrum as well as a wide range of academics and other policy experts.
That hasn’t insulated Google from criticism, as the New America controversy clearly demonstrates. But it has ensured that there are plenty of Google-friendly voices participating in policy debates. That fact has given scholars at the most influential think tanks, both on the left and the right, a reason to think twice before seriously challenging Google’s power.
That is why Lynn’s decision to leave New America and start his own organization could be significant. Lynn has already secured funding from a variety of foundations to allow him and his team to continue their work.
“When a corporation gives people money, there’s an expectation attached to that money,” Lynn says. “It’s really hard to bite the hand that feeds you. That’s why it’s so important to avoid accepting corporate money in the first place.”
Over the next few years, Lynn’s new organization will be laying the groundwork for more aggressive enforcement of antitrust law. Whether such a new version is actually put into effect will depend on who controls the White House and Congress in the coming years. If Warren, Sanders, or perhaps a populist Republican wins the White House, Lynn’s team will be ready with concrete ideas for reining in the power of big technology companies like Google.
On the other hand, if more conventional candidates—either centrist Democrats in the mold of Barack Obama or free-market conservatives—win the White House, Google is less likely to face serious regulatory scrutiny.