The Department of Justice is expected to brief state attorneys general this week about imminent plans to file an antitrust lawsuit against Google, according to The Washington Post. The lawsuit could be filed as soon as next week and follows an investigation into major technology companies and their abilities to maintain supremacy by using their large platforms to promote their own offerings over similar ones from competitors.
Owning the platform — The investigation into Google initially focused on the company's advertising business, which commands about 30 percent of the U.S. digital advertising market. But the scope of the investigation widened as companies like Yelp met with regulators to complain about the company prioritizing its own products over theirs in search results. Publishers are unhappy with Google for, among other things, scraping snippets of articles from their sites and presenting them directly in search results, making it less likely that users will click through and visit a website.
Conservatives, as always, believe that tech platforms are censoring them unfairly — extremist right-wing figures like Alex Jones have been completely wiped from Google's platforms in a crackdown on dangerous content.
It's currently a violation of antitrust law for any business to behave in a way that intentionally makes it difficult for new upstarts to compete. Regulators will need a strong case to prove that Google intentionally aims to prioritize its own services over those from others, however. Google often says its search rankings weigh results in a nonbiased manner, based on signals like how many times a website has been linked to from other websites, thereby inferring quality.
Google doesn't disclose all the signals or how exactly its search algorithm works. Certain guidelines against hate speech do mean that Google interferes with results on some occasions.
To see how important platform control is, consider that Facebook is currently investing billions of dollars into developing new AR glasses and VR goggles in the hopes of developing the next major platform akin to the iPhone. There, Apple dictates all the rules and takes a slice of revenue from any app developer who finds success offering apps through the App Store. Facebook previously tried and failed to develop its own mobile OS based on Android that nobody wanted.
Section 230 — Google is also being attacked by the Trump administration over Safe Harbor provisions in the Communications Decency Act, which allows platforms to moderate user-generated content for hate speech but protects them from liability over any dangerous content that users post that leads to violence. Trump and Republications want to amend the act because they believe they're being censored unfairly. Ironically, removing those protections would leave Google with the choice of not censoring at all, or censoring a lot more than it does today — ergo, Trump might get censored more than he currently is.
Everyone wants Google, Facebook, and the like to better combat misinformation and hate speech, but the idea that the government is going to be involved in deciding what content can or can't be posted doesn't sound much better. With the election nearing, however, there probably won't be much movement here until 2021.
Sentiment on the platform dominance issue is more against Google. The company has already been forced in other countries like Russia to allow manufacturers to pre-install competing search engines on new Android phones, and in Spain the company shut down its News service after that country required it share advertising revenue with news sites who said it was taking all the money for itself while they did the hard work.
Microsoft was famously taken to task in the '90s by the Justice Department over its control of Windows. It was eventually forced to make it easier for PC manufacturers to pre-install their own software.