Embarrassing: New Antitrust Suit Against Google Confuses WhatsApp Encrypted Backup Option With Giving Google A Backdoor

from the guys,-guys,-guys dept

Look, I get the fact that people are concerned about big technology companies. I'm very concerned about big technology companies too, and think it's important that we figure out ways to build more competition, and to get away from reliance on many of these companies. But the way in which so many assume that antitrust is the only way to get there is problematic. And it's even more problematic when the antitrust lawsuits they file seem to be mostly based on misunderstanding or misrepresenting certain things with totally innocuous explanations. That keeps happening.

The DOJ's antitrust lawsuit against Google is embarrassingly weak, and seems to confuse who has market power (e.g., claiming that Google paying billions to Apple is some sort of proof of its own dominance). The FTC and nearly all states' antitrust suits against Facebook are fundamentally stronger than the DOJ's case against Google, but still, astoundingly weak in terms of actual evidence of antitrust violations.

This week, there are two new entrants. One lawsuit was just announced today, and we'll explore that one later, but yesterday, Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton, who was one of the earliest Attorney Generals who spoke out in favor of going after Google, has now done so, with a an interesting antitrust lawsuit against the company, done with the support of 9 other states, all with Republican Attorneys General. Notably, some of the states (though not all) also signed onto the DOJ's antitrust lawsuit.

This lawsuit takes a different approach from the DOJ's lawsuit, which focused on the market for general search services and search advertising. This one focuses on general display advertising. And maybe there's an argument that Google is doing something bad in how it handles the display advertising market. Indeed, some of the complaint (though heavily redacted), suggests some potentially sketchy behavior on the part of Google, to block competition in the ads space. If that's proven, that would be bad, and it would be good if the lawsuit forced Google to change those practices and enable more competition.

There's also a heavily redacted section, that hints strongly that Google and Facebook worked out some sort of agreement to keep Facebook from competing as directly with (and undercutting the pricing of) Google's display ads business. And that does sound like a potentially huge deal -- one that very well might truly be anticompetitive. But the details and what's redacted are important.

It would be great if the lawsuit focused on things like those two points. But it also includes other things that seem to suggest a near total and fundamental misunderstanding of how technology works, which does not provide much confidence that the Attorneys General know what they're talking about in the other parts. Notably, there's this scary bit that started making the rounds on Twitter, with people asking what the fuck was going on:

Google also has violated users’ privacy in other egregious ways when doing so is convenient for Google. For instance, shortly after Facebook acquired WhatsApp, in 2015, Facebook signed an exclusive agreement with Google, granting Google access to millions of Americans’ end-to-end encrypted WhatsApp messages, photos, videos, and audio files.

That raised many eyebrows, because, if true, that's huge news. Most of the details here are redacted as well, but the complaint calls this a "fundamental breach of privacy." But, this seems like a giant misunderstanding by the lawyers who wrote the lawsuit. What they appear to be referencing is a deal from 2015 in which Google allowed WhatsApp users to easily back up their encrypted data to Google Drive. That's a useful feature, and not at all nefarious. The content is still encrypted, so Google doesn't get access to anything more than the encrypted blob. Google even has this integration as a Google Cloud case study.

That's not exactly the behavior of a company that has a nefarious deal to snoop on everyone's WhatsApp messages. Notably, that integration is a totally voluntary opt-in feature that is really useful. It lets you restore your WhatsApp if you're switching phones, or just make sure you don't lose all your messages if you lose or break your phone. It's a good thing -- not some evil attack on privacy, as the lawsuit suggests.

There is some more redacted content around this, suggesting that Facebook shared some kind of information with Google that it shouldn't have, but the non-redacted parts seem to misunderstand the technology, which seems problematic. It also seems emblematic of lawyers looking to twist anything against the company, rather than looking for actual violations.

As for the rest, much of it seems to misunderstand the ad market. In particular there's a long discussion on header bidding, and how Google did not like header bidding and wanted to kill it:

Finally, Google wanted to eliminate header bidding to foreclose any competition with its publisher ad server monopoly. The companies involved with header bidding would have a foothold on a key function of Google’s ad server: routing a publishers’ inventory to exchanges. With that, a major header bidding player like Amazon or Facebook was well-positioned to eventually compete directly with Google’s monopoly ad server. Without control over publishers’ inventory, Google would lose the ability to block exchange competition and tilt trading to Google.

I'm a publisher. And, every freaking day, we get approached by some new online ad firm that wants us to sign up to use their ads because of their use of header bidding. There must be hundreds of ad providers now offering header bidding. Honestly, as a publisher, at this point, it's almost impossible to put ads on your site that don't make use of header bidding.

If the all powerful Google set out to quash header bidding, holy crumb, did it fail.

There are elements (again, too much redacted) in the complaint that do seem concerning. And if the end result of this lawsuit is to force Google to play more fair with display ads, that would be a good thing. So I'd be happy if that were the result here. But I'm concerned by what appears to be a clumsy misunderstanding of the technology, and the status of the advertising market today.

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Filed Under: antitrust, cloud backup, competition, display ads, encryption, ken paxton, messages, privacy
Companies: facebook, google, whatsapp


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  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 17 Dec 2020 @ 3:13pm

    Rhetorical Question

    Misrepresentation to get what they want is a way of life for politicians. Attorney generals are politicians, so is it any wonder they use misrepresentation when building a case?

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    Richard M (profile), 17 Dec 2020 @ 4:46pm

    Real fixes do not matter

    Politicians do not care about actually fixing problems.

    What they care about is appearing to fix problems and having nice sound bites for their campaigns. Any real solutions are just accidental and not important in any way.

    Why all the redactions? Is there a legal reason for having them in a public document?

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • icon
      Mononymous Tim (profile), 17 Dec 2020 @ 5:20pm

      Re: Real fixes do not matter

      Exactly, because the flocks that follow the politicians don't bother to follow up on anything. Maybe it's because subconsciously they're afraid it'll tarnish their opinion of their dear leader.

      Basically, ignorance is bliss.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • This comment has been flagged by the community. Click here to show it
    identicon
    Tellus Savalas, 17 Dec 2020 @ 5:00pm

    Let's get to specifics!

    I'm ready to hear! Down from ivory tower and tell us, Doctor!

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • This comment has been flagged by the community. Click here to show it
      identicon
      Anonymous Coward, 17 Dec 2020 @ 5:21pm

      Re: Let's get to specifics!

      This was early attempt with funny screen name.

      However, it's caused me to snoop around. Found FOUR cookies from Techdirt. (This time I clicked the Okay, usually don't: seems to make no diff on the blocking.) Anyhoo, cookies are another bit to experiment with, and why do you need FOUR?

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

      • identicon
        Anonymous Coward, 17 Dec 2020 @ 5:58pm

        Re: Re: Let's get to specifics!

        They do separate, discrete things. Analyze them.

        reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

      • icon
        PaulT (profile), 18 Dec 2020 @ 2:48am

        Re: Re: Let's get to specifics!

        "Anyhoo, cookies are another bit to experiment with, and why do you need FOUR?"

        I see 12 on mine, but I'm not concerned about them because I did a little basic research and can see that most of them are related to the way the site operated (and, indeed, in part not related to Techdirt themselves as they're used by Cloudflare and other parties).

        Maybe you could spend less time ranting about the number of times other suers log in and trying to find ways to bypass the spam filter's correct treatment of your posts as spam to do your own research and learn some facts? It might be both more productive and more educational than what you're doing here otherwise.

        reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

        • icon
          Khym Chanur (profile), 18 Dec 2020 @ 4:51am

          Re: Re: Re: Let's get to specifics!

          I counted something like 29 Techdirt specific cookies using the EditThisCookie extension. But I don't see why the mere number of cookies would indicate something nefarious.

          reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

          • icon
            PaulT (profile), 18 Dec 2020 @ 5:32am

            Re: Re: Re: Re: Let's get to specifics!

            It doesn't. Looking in the cookies stored in my browser (Vivaldi), the majority are ad related, used by Cloudflare or for keeping login sessions open. Nothing obviously nefarious or suspicious.

            What's the betting that our resident genius here has been having so many problems because he's deleting cookies that keep the Cloudflare proxy open then complaining because he doesn't understand why the session had to reconnect?

            reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • This comment has been flagged by the community. Click here to show it
    identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 17 Dec 2020 @ 5:09pm

    I'm very concerned about big technology companies too!

    Maybe not same way. Let's see.

    I'm very concerned about big technology companies too, and think it's important that we figure out ways to build more competition, and to get away from reliance on many of these companies.

    A) Specify exactly what you're concerned about. Because I've asked for years, and see nothing but a contextless, non-specific, "concern", and suspect / expect that's all you'll ever write.

    B) Optimistically assuming you stated that you're "concerned" over, say, that the menu choices in Google's cafeteria doesn't have enough tofu and green, then tell us what you wish done. -- Don't bother with do-able, just WISH.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • This comment has been flagged by the community. Click here to show it
      identicon
      Anonymous Coward, 17 Dec 2020 @ 5:10pm

      Re: I'm very concerned about big technology companies too!

      But the way in which so many assume that antitrust is the only way to get there is problematic.

      Okay, DOCTOR, tell us another way, of course including the specifics asked for above, else this too is just rhetoric.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • This comment has been flagged by the community. Click here to show it
      identicon
      Anonymous Coward, 17 Dec 2020 @ 5:10pm

      Re: I'm very concerned about big technology companies too!

      And it's even more problematic when the antitrust lawsuits they file seem to be mostly based on misunderstanding or misrepresenting certain things with totally innocuous explanations.

      I wish you'd quit using "problematic" everywhere. It's not impressive, only trite. Get a thesaurus.

      And let's have a jury of ordinary people, my peers decided whether Google can 'splain everything, rather than born-rich Ivy League indoctrinated ardent corporatist, okay?

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

      • identicon
        Anonymous Coward, 17 Dec 2020 @ 5:59pm

        Re: Re: I'm very concerned about big technology companies too!

        Let's organize our thoughts into one bloody post, mkay?

        reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

        • icon
          Stephen T. Stone (profile), 17 Dec 2020 @ 6:02pm

          You’ll have to forgive Brainy. He thinks that because his posts trip the spam filters for some reason~, he has to keep…well, spamming his posts and splitting them up because it’s the only way to get past the spam filters.

          I’ve had comments both short and long held up in the filters before. I never once thought to spam the same comment over and over until they passed through because I understand how spam filters work.

          reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • icon
      Stephen T. Stone (profile), 17 Dec 2020 @ 5:54pm

      I'm not Mike, but if you want an answer to this…

      Specify exactly what you're concerned about.

      …I’ll gladly oblige.

      • The centralization of Internet search, Internet video, and (to a certain extent) online advertising in the hands of Google

      • The massive amounts of data collection from multiple Google services

      • The not-so-secret spying on emails sent to and from Gmail accounts by Google technologies (i.e., advertising services)

      • The overreliance on Google services such as Google Docs, YouTube, Google Drive, Google’s reCAPTCHA, and its advertising and analytics services

        • Corollary: Google becoming “too big to fail”, such that any Google service going down affects a large chunk of the Internet
      • The willingness of Google to roll over for DMCA takedown requests, even blatantly bogus takedown requests, and thus censor speech at the behest of damn near literally anyone

      • The willingness of Google to fight largely for what is best for Google, regardless of how that may affect its users or the Internet in general

      • The willingness of Google to give up its “don’t be evil” mantra for the sake of profit

      That specific enough for you, Brainy? Or did you want me to toss in something about Section 230 or “viewpoint discrimination” or whatever narrow-minded bullshit grievance you have against literally anyone who isn’t a member of your filter bubble?

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • This comment has been flagged by the community. Click here to show it
    identicon
    Gogol, 18 Dec 2020 @ 3:40am

    Fraud article is fraud article

    Before making big claims against people trying to save our freedom and the internet, mind doing a tiny bit of research? If you actually had any exposure to the stuff you are writing about or even just opened backup settings in Whatsapp and actually read what is written there, you would have found the following - "Messages and media backed up in Google Drive are not protected by WhatsApp end-to-end encryption". Now please delete this article and put out a correction.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    Ehud Gavron (profile), 18 Dec 2020 @ 9:20am

    If I pay someone... how am I the bad guy?

    ...seems to confuse who has market power (e.g., claiming that Google paying billions to Apple is some sort of proof of its own dominance)...

    Yes... something something something komplete.

    If Google is paying Apple (BusinessInsider and DOJ suggest $12B) it would seem to non-lawyer me that Google is clearly NOT in charge of the market.

    I'll try not to use an analogy, which is my favorite way of communicating, and instead hit this screw on its philips head ("+" in Canada and Australia). The CONTROL OF THE MARKET is in Apple's hands. Apple collects payments from other companies (e.g. Google) in order to promote the use of Google's search engine.

    If, inter alia, Mozilla, Apple, Microsoft, Linkedin, and Axios ALL took money from Google to have Google be the primary search engine provider... in my mind that doesn't cement Google as a monopoly, an antitrust violator, etc. If Microsoft wanted Bing to be in that spot, they could fund the same dollars. That's not a monopoly nor is it antitrust.

    It's RICO for sure. I know Mr. Hat will agree.

    Ehud
    P.S. Yes, I know Mr. White's last name is not Hat, but the South Park reference was too good to pass up.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 21 Dec 2020 @ 8:29pm

    Why yes you are a brilliant mind.
    Not.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]


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