Attorney General Bill Barr’s rush to file an antitrust suit against Google two weeks before the end of an election seems suspicious. At the very least, the suit reflects President Donald Trump’s stated desire to punish imagined enemies in tech companies for their imagined biases against the right.
If the case is cynical, however, it also marks a magnificent turning point in American political economy. Whatever corrupt thoughts tinge the suit, they do nothing to vitiate this fact: The antitrust suit, which alleges that Google has abused its search monopoly to squash competition, is the beginning of the end of a lawless era, when Big Tech could get away with whatever bolstered its profits and power.
Not to give Barr too much credit. Plenty of political players had already moved in this direction. For several years, attorneys general at the state level sought to force the Justice Department to take firmer action, by launching their own investigation into the company. Earlier this month, the House Subcommittee on Antitrust published a massive—and brilliant—opus about the perils of Big Tech, especially Google. The report, based on subpoenaed documents, included a crystalline explanation of how the company abuses its dominance to stifle competitors and entrench itself. This wasn’t a press conference called by Ralph Nader, but a carefully argued, heavily footnoted door-stopper, officially blessed by both Democrat and Republican elected officials. (The Justice Department suit focuses narrowly on Google’s search business; the House report provides the blueprint for a more comprehensive case against the company.)
To grasp the significance of the suit, think back to the Obama administration’s decision not to take antitrust action against Google in 2012, despite the urging of career officials at the Federal Trade Commission. If Barr’s suit seems driven by politics, so was the Obama-era inaction. Google had built a sturdy alliance with the Obama White House. Its employees contributed more to Obama’s reelection campaign than any other company, except Microsoft. That campaign contracted with a firm owned by Google’s chair, Eric Schmidt, for data analytics—and on Election Night in Chicago, Schmidt personally oversaw the analysis operation.
For a time, Google mastered the byways of Washington with its army of lobbyists. It helped shape the capital’s attitude toward Silicon Valley. Washington accepted Google’s monopoly, because it swallowed the company’s arguments about so-called network effects. That is, elite opinion came to believe that the architecture of the internet made it natural that only one search engine or one social-media site would rise to dominance. After all, what made Google and Facebook so good was that everyone used them. Their dominance, with all the data it yielded, enabled them to become comprehensive, well organized, and convenient.
Today’s suit is an important rejection of the claim that the internet can only operate efficiently with monopolistic gatekeepers. Explicit in the Justice Department’s suit is that the internet is less innovative when power concentrates in a small handful of companies. Schmidt used to say that, on the internet, competition is always a click away. If his company were to ever become a stodgy monopoly in the style of AT&T or IBM, then some kids in a garage would build something better. By this late date, we know that this theory is a canard. There’s no knocking Google from its unassailable monopoly, no chance for a kid in a garage to succeed in the search business without the forceful hand of the government creating the space for competition. That forceful hand has finally arrived.
In the realm of antitrust—as both the Obama and Trump administrations have shown—politics may propel law. But the common good should drive it too. In the American tradition, the state has historically curbed monopolies detrimental to democracy, especially communication monopolies. This suit will likely provide the necessary and precedent-setting return of that long-shelved canon of anti-monopoly laws and thinking.
Big Tech no longer simply supplies algorithms. Silicon Valley companies are proprietors of a public square that is a toxic mess. They now find themselves under pressure to sanitize their own creations. Elected officials and much of the public have clamored for these companies, built on the values of computer science, to now adjudicate truth, to determine which views of the world should be rendered verboten and which pieces of information are invalid. This might be a necessary function for them to fill, especially in the final weeks of a presidential election rife with manipulation. Over the long run, however, it’s too much power to vest in a small handful of corporations, which have a stake in the political outcomes of such decisions.
The irony here is that, in threatening to dismantle Google, Barr is initiating the process of neutering a company that fostered the rise of his patron. Google’s YouTube proliferated QAnon; Google’s search engine gave rise to the “pink slime” publications that have amplified the Trumpist message; Google’s capture of the advertising market precipitated the destruction of the journalistic institutions that once supplied the citizenry with reliable information. Diminishing the power of Google creates the possibility of a healthier information ecosystem. If America ever hopes to transcend the underlying forces that made Trump possible, it will need to follow Barr’s lead.
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