The Justice Department’s expected suit against Google marks the most consequential step the US government has taken to hold Silicon Valley to account after Washington took a dramatic turn against the tech industry following evidence that major social media platforms were manipulated by foreign election meddling efforts in 2016. Since then, the top executives of major tech platforms have been repeatedly hauled before Congress to face questions about their responsibilities toward political speech; hateful content and misinformation; small businesses and local journalism; and competition.
Even as the Justice Department prepares to take Google to court over antitrust concerns, others in the tech industry could face lawsuits of similar magnitude. Officials at the Federal Trade Commission have been investigating Facebook for over a year, and that investigation could culminate in its own landmark litigation.
The pending Google suit also symbolizes the growing criticism, particularly by former Democratic presidential candidates including Sens. Elizabeth Warren and Amy Klobuchar, against historic levels of economic inequality and corporate concentration in the United States.
“The most important tech industry monopolization case before this one was United States v. Microsoft in 1998,” William Kovacic, former chairman of the Federal Trade Commission, told CNN Business before the suit was announced. During that case, the US government alleged Microsoft broke the law by bundling its browser, Internet Explorer, with every copy of Windows — to the detriment of competition among browser makers. After several years of litigation, Microsoft and the government reached a settlement that imposed new limits on Microsoft’s software business.
Experts have since credited that case with paving the way for new innovation — including the rise of Google.
Kovacic said that, as before, the government faces years of litigation ahead — and a challenging path to victory. “None of this will be easy,” he said. “You can climb to the summit, but it’s a tough climb.”
Attorney General William Barr has reportedly taken a personal interest in the investigation and the resulting lawsuit, the New York Times has reported.
After the head of DOJ’s antitrust division, Makan Delrahim, recused himself over having previously represented Google in private practice, Barr assigned senior staffers in his own office to oversee the probe. He has reportedly pushed for an aggressive timeline for filing a suit; as far back as March of this year, Barr told the Wall Street Journal he hoped to bring the investigation “to fruition [in] early summer.”
Hanging over the case too will be President Donald Trump, who has been vocal in his criticism of tech platforms.
Trump’s remarks could complicate any lawsuit targeting the tech companies. By nature and longstanding custom, presidents are expected to steer clear of addressing government investigations and potential lawsuits, in order to avoid even the perception of politically motivated litigation.
Google’s critics have complained that its search business promotes Google’s own apps and services to users while demoting those of its rivals.
“Google search is not a neutral gateway to the information available on the web,” David Dinielli, a senior advisor at Omidyar Network and a former DOJ antitrust official, told CNN Business before the suit was announced. “Google search is a set of algorithms designed to make Google — or Alphabet, its parent company — the most money it can possibly make.”
— CNN’s Evan Perez contributed reporting.