This week could mark the official end of the long love affair between Washington and Silicon Valley.
The U.S. Justice Department and 11 state attorneys general have filed a blockbuster lawsuit against Google, accusing it of being an illegal monopoly because of its stranglehold on Internet search.
The government alleged Google has come by its wild success — 80% market share in U.S. search, a valuation eclipsing $1 trillion — unfairly. It said multibillion-dollar deals Google has struck to be the default search engine in many of the world’s Web browsers and smartphones have boxed out its rivals.
Just look at the word “Google,” the lawsuit said — it’s become “a verb that means to search the internet.” What company can compete with that?
Google’s head of global affairs, Kent Walker, said the government’s case is “deeply flawed.” The company warned that if the Justice Department prevails, people would pay more for their phones and have worse options for searching the Internet.
It will likely be years before this fight is resolved. After all, the U.S. government’s investigations into Microsoft a generation ago, culminating in the Justice Department’s attempt to break up the company, spanned more than a decade.
But a tectonic shift is happening right now: USA v. Google is the biggest manifestation of what has become known as the “Techlash” — a newfound skepticism of Silicon Valley’s giants and growing appetite to rein them in through regulation.
“It’s the end of hands-off of the tech sector,” said Gene Kimmelman, a former senior antitrust official at the Justice Department. “It’s probably the beginning of a decade of a series of lawsuits against companies like Google who dominate in the digital marketplace.”
Washington and Silicon Valley: “A relationship of extremes”
It wasn’t always this way. For years, under both Republican and Democratic administrations, Silicon Valley’s tech stars have thrived with little regulatory scrutiny.
Even the Justice Department acknowledged that in this week’s lawsuit, describing Google in its early days as “a scrappy startup with an innovative way to search the emerging internet.”
But it added “that Google is long gone.”
There is similar skepticism in Washington of Facebook, Amazon and Apple — the companies that, with Google, have become known as Big Tech, an echo of the corporate villains of earlier eras such as Big Oil and Big Tobacco.
All four tech giants have been under investigation by regulators, state attorneys general and Congress — a sharp shift from just a few years ago when many politicians cozied up to the cool kids of Silicon Valley.
Tech companies spend millions of dollars lobbying lawmakers, and many high-level government officials have left politics to work in tech, from Amazon’s top public relations and policy official, Jay Carney, who spent three years as President Barack Obama’s press secretary, to Facebook’s head of global public policy, Joel Kaplan, a veteran of President George W. Bush’s White House.
“It’s been a relationship of extremes,” University of Washington historian Margaret O’Mara told NPR this summer when the CEOs of the four Big Tech firms faced congressional grilling.
She said Washington’s laissez-faire attitude toward tech is at least partly responsible for the sector’s expansion into nearly every aspect of our lives.
“These companies were allowed to grow large, in part because they had political champions on both sides of the aisle that really supported what they were doing and viewed a lot of what they were doing uncritically. And then … these companies became so big and so powerful and so good at what they set out to do, it became something of a runaway train,” she said.
O’Mara sees historical precedent for today’s Techlash. “We have seen this before in American history with other newish industries — railroads, oil, steel — that grew very fast and grew in a nearly entirely unregulated fashion,” she said. “Then there was a popular and political backlash against them that resulted in the regulation of these industries and, in some cases, the breakup of particular companies.”
In a politically divided era, bipartisan skepticism of Big Tech
The Google lawsuit is the most concrete action in the U.S. to date challenging the power of Big Tech. While the government stopped short of explicitly calling for a breakup, U.S. Associate Deputy Attorney General Ryan Shores said that “nothing’s off the table.”
“This case signals that the antitrust winter is over,” Columbia University law professor Tim Wu, who has argued for breaking up Big Tech, told NPR’s All Things Considered this week.
But other branches of government are also considering ways to bring these companies to heel.
House Democrats released a sweeping report this month calling for new rules to strip Apple, Amazon, Facebook and Google of the power that has made each of them dominant in their fields. Their recommendations ranged from forced “structural separations” to reforming American antitrust law.
Republicans, meanwhile, have channeled much of their ire into allegations that platforms such as Facebook and Twitter are biased against conservatives — a claim for which there is no conclusive evidence.
Congressional Republicans and the Trump administration are using those bias claims to push for an overhaul of Section 230 of the 1996 Communications Decency Act, a longstanding legal shield that protects online platforms from being sued over what people post on them and says they can’t be punished for reasonable moderation of those posts.
The CEOs of Google, Facebook and Twitter are set to appear next week before the Senate Commerce Committee at a hearing about Section 230.
But interest in changing Section 230 also extends across the aisle as Democrats have become more alarmed over the way social media platforms have been used to spread hateful content, falsehoods and even violence. Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden has said the law should be revoked.
On the same day the Justice Department sued Google, two House Democrats, Anna Eshoo, whose California district includes large parts of Silicon Valley, and Tom Malinowski of New Jersey, introduced their own bill taking aim at Section 230. It would hold tech companies liable if their algorithms amplify or recommend “harmful, radicalizing content that leads to offline violence.”
That means whichever party wins control of the White House and Congress in November, Big Tech should not expect the temperature in Washington to warm up.
Editor’s note: Google, Facebook, Apple and Amazon are among NPR’s financial supporters.
NPR’s Bobby Allyn contributed to this report.