Attorneys general from nearly every U.S. state have jointly launched an investigation into Google’s “potential monopolistic behavior.” Notable for its absence: California, Google’s home state.
Citing a need to protect the integrity of “potential and ongoing investigations,” Attorney General Xavier Becerra declined to say why he refused to join the chief law enforcement officers of 48 other states, plus Washington, D.C., and Puerto Rico, in examining the Mountain View-based Internet giant’s dominance in online advertising. Alabama is the only other state not participating in the probe, announced Monday.
Seeing as Becerra’s office has one of the most robust and aggressive antitrust teams in the country and his domain includes many of the largest tech firms, experts say it’s perplexing that he elected not to take part.
“I just do not understand why California is not a part of this effort,” said John Simpson, who served as the privacy and technology project director for Consumer Watchdog, a nonprofit advocacy organization, until he retired earlier this year. “Google has monopolized the market and really needs to be held accountable for that.”
It’s surprising, he said, because the state has been a part of so many similar joint efforts in the past. “I’m completely at a loss to explain why this is happening.”
A spokesperson for Becerra declined to comment on the investigation, saying: “California remains deeply concerned and committed to fighting anticompetitive behavior.”
Assemblyman Jordan Cunningham, R-Templeton, called California’s non-involvement “embarrassing.”
“California deserves to be at the table,” he said. Cunningham is one of four California Assembly Republicans who introduced a resolution encouraging Becerra and Congress to take aim at Apple, Facebook, Google, Microsoft and Amazon last week.
As a candidate for the House of Representatives, Becerra was the recipient of considerable largess from Google. From 2010 through 2016, Becerra’s campaign received $23,000 from Google’s corporate political action committee, Google Inc. NetPAC, according to Federal Election Committee records. Two Google executives donated $2,600 and $5,300, respectively, to Becerra’s campaigns over that span.
But Becerra’s office has voiced support for cracking down on Big Tech. As California unrolls its Consumer Privacy Act, a far-reaching law that will put strict rules on how tech companies handle and collect user data when it goes into effect in January, Becerra called on the state Legislature to strengthen it. He and a group of privacy advocates wanted to strengthen it by adding a provision giving consumers the opportunity to sue if, for example, a company ignores a person’s demand to opt out of data collection.
William Kovacic, professor of law at George Washington University and former chairman of the Federal Trade Commission under President George W. Bush, speculated that the decision came from even higher in the state’s political hierarchy than Becerra’s office.
“Why would they sit on the sidelines?” he said. “It’s curious to see them take a walk on this one. We have to assume this was a political decision.”
One outcome that antitrust regulators might explore is forcing Google to spin off search as a separate company, experts say. Regulators also could focus on areas such as YouTube, which Google acquired in 2006. Google has long argued that although its businesses are large, they are useful and beneficial to consumers.
“Google is one of America’s top spenders on research and development, making investments that spur innovation,” wrote Kent Walker, the company’s senior vice president of global affairs. “Things that were science fiction a few years ago are now free for everyone — translating any language instantaneously, learning about objects by pointing your phone, getting an answer to pretty much any question you might have.”
But federal and state regulators and policymakers are growing more concerned with the company’s influence — not just on ordinary Internet users, but also on smaller companies striving to compete in Google’s markets.
“On the one hand, you could just say, ‘Well, Google is dominant because they’re good,’” said Jen King, director of consumer privacy at Stanford Law School’s Center for Internet and Society. “But at the same time, it’s created an ecosystem where people’s whole Internet experience is mediated through Google’s home page and Google’s other products.”
Google will control 31.1 percent of global digital ad dollars in 2019, according to eMarketer estimates, far surpassing second-place Facebook. And many smaller advertisers have argued that Google has such a stranglehold on the market that it becomes a system of whatever Google says, goes — because the alternative could be not reaching customers.
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