Google lawsuit could usher in new phase of tech regulation
By Cat Zakrzewski
The Google lawsuit may be the beginning of a new era of tech regulation in Washington.
The Justice Department (DOJ) on Tuesday accused the tech giant of illegally using special agreements and other tactics to secure dominance in online search. The suit is widely seen as the most significant antitrust action in the more than two decades since government regulators first sued Microsoft.
The lawsuit could mark a key inflection point in Washington's efforts to regulate Silicon Valley.
Scrutiny of the tech industry has ballooned in the nation's capital in recent years, but until now federal regulators have passed little meaningful legislation or other penalties targeting the companies for perceived transgressions. Consumer advocates and legal experts say the DOJ broadside is an early sign that could be changing.
"This lawsuit's filing is an indication of the end of the beginning," David Dinielli, a senior adviser at the Omidyar Network, which was started by eBay founder Pierre Omidyar and has advocated for greater antitrust scrutiny of Silicon Valley, told The Washington Post. "We've been in a period of awakening about technology and its dominance. I view this lawsuit that this awakening period is ending, and we're entering a phase of action."
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The Google case probably will trigger a years-long legal battle between the Mountain View, Calif., company and regulators. It could also shape the future of Google's business, but it's expected to be a key test of federal regulators' ability to effectively police the tech industry.
"At stake is no less than Washington's power and political willingness to watch over Silicon Valley, so the government's gambit against Google stands to test whether roughly century-old antitrust rules are sufficiently powerful to keep the country's technology giants in check," The Post reported.
That could have broad implications for other tech giants in regulators' glare, including Amazon, Apple and Facebook. (Amazon chief executive Jeff Bezos owns The Washington Post).
"I think it's inevitable that their practices will face severe scrutiny, some of it could be antitrust cases like the Google case," said Gene Kimmelman, a senior adviser to the consumer group Public Knowledge and a former DOJ antitrust official. "I think we're going to see multiple lawsuits and increasingly legislation to address some of the anticompetitive practices that smaller players are facing in the digital marketplace."
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Congress may be able to act more swiftly than the courts to address some of the antitrust concerns that have been raised about Google and other tech giants, experts say.
"The filing of the suit, and the fact that there's now a clear, demonstrable danger of competition will unleash a variety of new policy proposals to start breaking down the practices of the dominant players that inhibit innovation and leave no room for smaller players in the marketplace," Kimmelman said.
Whether Republicans or Democrats control Congress next year, there is political appetite to act on tech issues, but for different reasons. Republicans are focused on allegations of political bias and content moderation by tech companies, based on specious evidence that is widely denied by the tech companies. Democrats, meanwhile, are more concerned about competition issues and the rise of extremism on social media.
Washington lawmakers may be able to learn from their European counterparts as they seek to rein in Silicon Valley. European regulators have been more aggressive than their U.S. counterparts in taking antitrust action against American tech behemoths, and they've fined Google more than $9 billion. But experts say those efforts have not gone far enough to spur greater competition in the marketplace, and U.S. lawmakers should be closely watching steps the European Union is taking now to step up regulation of the tech sector.
"We're a bit behind in our lawsuits, but we should leapfrog ahead and anticipate that we will need broader regulatory tools to really rein in the abusive practices on digital platforms," Kimmelman said.
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Lawmakers say they're emboldened by the lawsuit. Rep. David Cicilline of Rhode Island, the top Democrat on the House judiciary panel's antitrust subcommittee, told The Post that the suit highlights the need to for lawmakers to move forward with updates to federal antitrust law.
"I think it underscores again the importance of Congress to conduct its policymaking responsibilities, to move forward with a set of recommendations," he said. Cicilline's staff just released a key report on their findings from a House investigation into competition in the tech industry a few weeks ago.
Lawmakers from both parties expressed their support for the antitrust case - a rare feat in Washington two weeks before a highly contentious presidential election and amid a high-stakes battle over the future of the Supreme Court.
Sen. Josh Hawley, R-Mo., who has been an aggressive critic of the tech companies, told reporters that the case is a chance to show that antitrust law is "still very much alive and it has an important role to play in this era. "
The Washington Post