Bill Barr's Google 'Antitrust Inquiry' Is A Weaponized Farce

from the unserious-people dept

Last month we noted how Bill Barr was rushing DOJ staffers (much to their chagrin) to launch his "antitrust inquiry" into Google. Why? Three reasons. One, it helps Trump allies and Google adversaries like "big telecom," Oracle, and Rupert Murdoch. Two, it helps put the utterly false narrative of "social media unfairly censors Conservatives" into headlines during an election. And three, it creates leverage over companies that have finally just begun to take online hate speech and disinformation (a cornerstone of Trumpism) seriously. Genuine concerns about "monopoly power" are the last thing on these folks' minds.

Right on cue, Bill Barr this morning announced that the Department of Justice is suing Google, claiming that the company's anticompetitive practices in arenas such as search "have had harmful effects on competition and consumers." The initial press release compares Google's dominance to historical natural monopolies of note, such as 80's era AT&T:

"The antitrust laws protect our free market economy and forbid monopolists from engaging in anticompetitive practices. They also empower the Department of Justice to bring cases like this one to remedy violations and restore competition, as it has done for over a century in notable cases involving monopolists over other critical industries undergirding the American economy like Standard Oil and the AT&T telephone monopoly. Decades ago the Department’s case against Microsoft recognized that the antitrust laws forbid anticompetitive agreements by high-technology monopolists to require preinstalled default status, to shut off distribution channels to rivals, and to make software undeletable. The Complaint alleges that Google is using similar agreements itself to maintain and extend its own dominance."

You're to ignore that this is the same Bill Barr DOJ and Trump administration that has rubber stamped every last fleeting whim of natural telecom monopolies (like the recent T-Mobile merger). Monopolies like Comcast that, unlike search, leave consumers trapped in punitive, expensive relationships they simply cannot opt out of. The DOJ's announcement was launched in cooperation with a handful of GOP states, apparently because many other states -- many of which are pursuing their own inquiries into legitimate problems at Google -- didn't think much of Billy Barr's rushed effort.

Many lawyers don't think much of the effort either, noting that the rushed complaint is, as you might expect, filled with odd misses and whiffs. Like here, where the DOJ attempts to claim that Google's efforts to reduce smartphone and device bloatware imposed by wireless carriers is something that should be illegal:

Others were quick to note that Google's effectively being lambasted by Barr's DOJ because its search engine -- which, unlike telecom, consumers can choose not to use -- is extremely popular:

Again, that's because this is being driven by cronyism and election season politics, not a serious concern about monopoly power. Worse, while the DOJ's announcement will be applauded by well-intentioned folks eager to see Google's power knocked down a peg, tackling Google's domination in a politicized, half-assed fashion could actually make it harder to hold Google accountable down the line. The DOJ of course wants to have its cake and eat it too, providing Trump with election season fodder while breathlessly insisting that's not what's happening:

"So, I think it's fair to say, this case has nothing to do with that subject," [Deputy Attorney General Jeffrey] Rosen said. "This is an antitrust case about competitive conditions in the marketplace, and as I said earlier, it's been a matter of nonpartisan, bipartisan, kind of across-the-board interest."

To be very clear, there's plenty of things Google does (especially on the advertising end) that can be deemed anticompetitive, inconsistent, and infuriating, many of which could use a serious good faith inquiry. But folks like Bill Barr and the GOP mainstays applauding this inquiry don't genuinely care about monopoly power, unchecked corporate power, or the downsides of consolidation. They simply don't. The DOJ (under both parties) pretty consistently doesn't either:

Mindless rubber stamping of megamergers and flimsy antitrust enforcement is what the United States does. It's our biggest pastime outside of baseball. The one Trump example usually trotted out to claim otherwise, AT&T's lawsuit to stop the AT&T Time Warner merger, was more about pissing off CNN for Trump and helping Rupert Murdoch than any serious concern about media consolidation. Rupert wanted the deal blocked after Time Warner first rebuffed his merger affections in 2014, and AT&T rejected his offer to buy CNN twice in 2017. It's extremely likely he's the motivating force in this effort as well.

So despite what folks like Josh Hawley and Ted Cruz would have you believe, there's no evidence that monopoly power has ever been a genuine concern for the modern Trump GOP (simply look at its treatment of telecom, airlines, banks, and countless other heavily consolidated and monopolized sectors that routinely churn out a steady stream of consumer and competitor nightmares). And yet folks who've built entire careers on the backs of not giving a flying shit about corporate power, consolidation, and monopolization will now get to spend two weeks before an election pretending otherwise:

Why look at all the very serious, good faith, anti-monopolists just super and genuinely concerned about mindless consolidation and corporate power:

The idea that Jordan, Cruz, or Cotton genuinely care about corporate power, monopolies, or U.S. antitrust enforcement is laughable, and it's astonishing that anybody could take this performative stage play seriously. While they're doing their best to pantomime genuine concern, these gentlemen see the vilification of "big tech" as a matter of political convenience, providing leverage in their ongoing efforts to force the carriage of political disinformation, with the added perk that it's of great benefit to GOP megadonors and longstanding GOP allies like Rupert, AT&T, and Oracle.

Again, reporting indicates that while there may have been some kernels of good faith intention at the heart of the inquiry, Barr quickly got to work politicizing the effort -- and rushing it against the wishes of staff so it could be used as election season fodder. Trampling the law and government integrity for his authoritarian boss is what Bill Barr does. It's unclear how many examples are needed for the message to get through. Barr and friends should no longer enjoy the benefit of the doubt.

It's a lot like the sordid TikTok affair, which had more to do with cronyism (nabbing Oracle a hosting deal) and political convenience (amplifying xenophobia) than any genuine concern about consumer privacy or internet security. Bill Barr's inquiry is politicized bad faith bullshit dressed up as serious adult policy making, and it's relatively astonishing how many folks (including both of the country's biggest cable news outlets and numerous tech reporters) literally can't tell the difference, or be bothered to include even the faintest hint of context that the investigation may not be entirely on the up and up.

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Filed Under: antitrust, bill barr, doj, monopolies
Companies: google

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  1. icon
    Scary Devil Monastery (profile), 22 Oct 2020 @ 4:51am

    Re: Re: Re: Re: Re:

    "But I gather that for advertisers and/or businesses wishing to advertise, the situation is significantly different..."

    Rapidly changing but it's a fact that online advertising is a market which requires a great deal of technical skill to pull off properly.

    And that's a problem because if you are a great programmer today you aren't a guy in a basement with a plan. You probably already work for Google; or are driving the next Linux kernel, or telling Microsoft how to replace their shoddy legacy shit with open source the best way...
    If you are a good programmer then you have steady work. It may be as "glamorous" as sitting in Tucson, Texas and reprogramming obsolete traffic systems but hey, there's a paycheck in it.
    If you are merely mediocre you either end up doing tech support for life, which merits the question whether the Hague Tribunal knows of this - or you borrow a lot of money to get licensed to SAP or Oracle and spend as many years as your conscience will hold charging companies locked into those business models unreal rates for chimp work.

    Google had a running start because the competitors it set out to displace were best described as early betas; betas which were desperate to find revenue streams, to the point where - as I recall - the popup blocker was the very first add-on to gain significant traction in the browser segment when you could visit some sites and find your PC stalling and your modem choking over a dozen or more popup frames all containing more gáuche bling than you'd find hanging on all the rap artists of the early 80's.

    Google changed that whole landscape. Consumers got a great search engine. Advertisers got access to targeted advertising and a sensible scale of pricing with less need to just swarm every potential customer with a bullhorn and a pamphlet.
    Yahoo, Alta Vista, Lycos simply didn't work that well, and had very little business model underpinning their search engine.

    Today that's all different. Yeah, once Google starts screwing up - by letting their marketing department own their techies once too many times, or by making sufficient bad decisions to dilute the brand, or by getting legislated out of functionality - that is when the gap opens for the next competitor to take the throne.

    Right now, though, Google is still a tough act to follow. It's a bit hard to imagine outcompeting them in convenience, accuracy, or technological skill. At the same time it's hard to imagine splitting them up, because in the end what they have is the brand, the skill, and the search engine/advertising algorithms. Almost everything else people think of as "google" is either freeware or full open source.

    Forcing Adversarial Interoperability on Google may be the only way to open the market without taking steps which rolls the online environment back to 1980 as a side result...

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