A False Start for the Google Antitrust Case

At AdMonsters, we try to steer clear of politics—unless we’re talking about optimizing political campaigns—but sometimes politics comes knocking on our door and we can’t pretend we’re not home.

Our interest in the federal government’s antitrust suit against Google took a huge dive when we learned it would be centered around search. While mainstream publications trotted out the tired descriptor “landmark” for the headlines when the suit became public, many of us in the industry shook our heads and sighed.

Time and again, we’ve seen that the dominance of Google’s search engine is a consumer preference. And even then Amazon has been making gains on Google because consumers are going directly to the e-commerce giant for searches (particularly on mobile devices). Trying to reframe the Microsoft antitrust suit (guess the feds heard the ‘90s are back!) for Google search is a fool’s errand, and we see this suit (as is) going down in flames.

Why oh why did the feds spend six months focusing on Google’s search business? Well, reporting suggests that Attorney General William Barr thought the ad tech angle was too complicated and not sexy enough to sell… Sell to whom? 

Yes, this is an antitrust suit in search of a reason to exist. You can imagine Barr frowning at his desk and muttering, “I know Google’s a monopoly; I just don’t know how!”

This reeks of a political shakedown similar to the constant beating of the “Repeal Section 230!” by prominent conservatives in and out of government. A repeal of Section 230 would actually accelerate the supposed bias against and censorship of conservatives, because the social platforms would be liable for published content and would have to take extreme mitigation measures to avoid legal action. Repeal is an empty threat, but it sends a message, especially coming from people in office—be “nicer” to (cough, promote) conservatives and their causes, or we will give you headaches.

The antitrust suit feels like similar blackmail—a conservative government demanding Google prop up its causes or suffer the nuisance of bogus legal maneuvers. Fighting the suit means bumping up legal resources (potentially ponying up more lobbying cash) and suffering bad press and sour public sentiment. The government already received the “landmark case” headlines it was looking for.

The situation is an abuse of government power that at the same time kicks the legs out from a real and deserved look at anticompetitive by Google in the ad tech space. There are several papers laying out anti-competitive practices in Google’s display and video ad tech business. Even the monster-sized Congressional inquiry/report featured criticism about Google’s ad tech practices and using its girth to control industry groups, from W3C to the IAB. And search is tied to this through the promotion of AMP pages, a framework that may be open-sourced but still with Google controlling the gates to monetization.

Let’s be clear—we are not “rooting” for Google to lose an antitrust case. However, within Google’s ad tech business we see a great deal of conflicts of interest, questionable practices, and unreasonable challenges faced by our publisher base. We merely think an investigation is warranted—one that’s driven by the actual situation, not what appears to be a politically motivated shakedown.

But this ain’t over. We’ve been telling you for some time that all 50 states’ attorneys generals were building a parallel antitrust suit against Google. The state AGs and feds were talking about joining forces, and 11 (Republican) state AGs jumped on the fed suit. (Texas AG Ken Paxton, who seems to be chief spokesperson for these state AGs, was just accused of bribery by two whistleblowers—that he subsequently fired!) 

A joint statement from several AGs—from Iowa, Nebraska, Colorado, Tennessee, New York, North Carolina, and Utah—that declined to join the fed case announced they were forging on with their investigation, planning to close up pieces of it in the next few weeks (after the upcoming elections…). They announced a plan to conjoin with the federal case if they decide to file—and indeed the federal case is open to amendment, with reports suggesting it will expand. 

The Washington Post’s background sources suggested that not all the attorneys were comfortable with the federal direction of the case, “while others fear the potential for a disruption in the lawsuit in the event that President Trump loses the 2020 election — a result that would shake up the federal government’s ranks and delay what is widely regarded as one of the most significant antitrust lawsuits in decades.”

Since the World Series is on, let’s go with the baseball analogy—this is the first inning for the Google antitrust suit, and the federal government just walked the first 10 batters or so. There’s time for the state AGs (or U.S. voters) to make a major switch at the mound.