Friday evening, the weather in Washington was incredible: the kind of pleasant, late spring or early summer night when the temperature is so comfortable you almost forget there actually is a temperature.

I imagine the whole city kicking back, taking a brief respite from the partisan warfare and bureaucratic lobbying that govern much of life.

All of which makes the news that leaked in the middle of it even more remarkable.

Writing in The Wall Street Journal, Brent Kendall and John D. McKinnon first reported at 8:34 p.m. that "[t]he Justice Department is gearing up for an antitrust investigation of Alphabet Inc.'s Google, a move that could present a major new layer of regulatory scrutiny for the search giant."

The reporting was sourced only to "people familiar with the matter," which is the classic language for a Washington leak -- and timed for a late spring Friday evening when almost everyone else had knocked off for the weekend.

Interestingly, the Journal report says the government has been planning the move "in recent weeks," which could coincide with when Google unveiled a series of privacy controls that many critics say are window dressing, designed more to protect Google's digital advertising business (which did $30.7 billion in the first quarter of this year).

Regardless, this won't be the first time Google has faced off against U.S. government regulators. 

The last time, in 2013, the Federal Trade Commission "conducted a broad antitrust investigation," as the Journal put it, but closed without taking any action -- "though Google made some voluntary changes to certain business practices."

This time, however, there are at least five giant differences:

  1. The entire cultural perception of the big tech giants has changed. As recently as 2017, Google ranked No. 7 on the Harris Poll annual list of the most visible companies in America, ranked by public perception. By 2018 it was No. 28; it's currently No. 41.
  2. This is the Justice Department, not the FTC. As the FTC explains on its website, the two agencies share jurisdiction but -- and I don't know yet if this is relevant, but it would worry me -- only the DOJ can "obtain criminal sanctions" in antitrust cases.
  3. In the meantime, Google has been walloped by antitrust regulators in Europe, including multibillion dollar fines 
  4. We're in the President Trump era now. During his nomination hearings in January, Attorney General William Barr specifically talked about antitrust enforcement against the big tech giants. ("I think a lot of people wonder how such huge behemoths that now exist in Silicon Valley have taken shape under the nose of the antitrust enforcers.")
  5. Finally, while Republicans control the executive branch, it's not as if Google can count on knee-jerk defense from Democrats in the current era. In fact, U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren, a Democrat from Massachusetts who is currently running for president, has been calling for the breakup of big tech companies under antitrust grounds for months.

So, where does this leave Google? In uncharted waters, at least within the United States. As Tony Romm of The Washington Post, who confirmed the Journal report, put it:

"The DOJ's probe could threaten Google with a harsh examination of its sprawling business, which ranges from its dominant position in search and advertising to its Android mobile operating system, and newer gambits, such as self-driving cars.

Its expansive footprint increasingly has drawn the attention of Democrats and Republicans in Washington, who say that Google -- and its peers in Silicon Valley -- have become too large and should potentially be broken up." 

Published on: May 31, 2019
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