BY BOWEN XIAO
Big tech companies are facing increasing scrutiny in the form of new probes, with Google facing a new antitrust probe announced earlier this week, and Facebook facing their own as of last week.
Google’s “dominance in the telecommunications and search engine industries” will be investigated by a partnership of about 50 U.S. States and territories with the launch on Sept. 9 of an anti-trust probe led by Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton.
Days before, a probe into antitrust issues with Facebook was announced by New York Attorney General Letitia James, who confirmed she is leading a separate, bipartisan coalition of attorneys general in eight states as part of their investigation.
The new state inquiries follow probes at the federal level by the Justice Department and the Federal Trade Commission, which are also investigating Facebook, Google, Apple, and Amazon for potential violations of antitrust law.
New York-based attorney Manny Alicandro, who has expertise in anti-trust matters, told The Epoch Times that the recent probes are “groundbreaking” in their nature and scope.
“This is historic scrutiny because it’s bipartisan,” he said in a phone call. “There’s a lot at stake in terms of how much these entities, these big tech companies, control and how they disseminate information. Fundamentally, this is about control and information.”
Alphabet, the parent company of Google, said on Sept. 6 that the Justice Department in late August requested information and documents related to prior antitrust probes of the company. Alphabet added in a securities filing that it expects similar investigative demands from state attorneys general and that it is cooperating with regulators. The tech giant has a market value of more than $820 billion and controls many facets of the internet.
On Sept. 12 the House of Representatives’ antitrust panel will be holding a hearing on the effects of consumer data collection by big tech platforms, such as Google and Amazon, on other companies and online competition. The hearing is the first of three upcoming sessions that are focused on antitrust issues.
The timing of the new probes is also interesting, Alicandro said. The vocal and online pressure from President Donald Trump against such companies was “making it newsworthy to the extent that it’s very topical.” But Alicandro also stressed that the probes will be based on merit and should “not be viewed as politically motivated.”
Last month, Trump brought up allegations that Google suppressed negative news stories about former 2016 presidential rival, Hillary Clinton. Trump said what the technology company did was illegal and said that his administration is watching Google “very closely.”
In 2016, Dr. Robert Epstein, senior research psychologist at the American Institute for Behavioral Research and Technology, conducted a secret monitoring project that showed Google hid negative auto-complete search results for Clinton months before the 2016 presidential election. His peer-reviewed research found Google’s algorithms can easily shift 20 percent or more votes among voters and up to 80 percent in some demographic groups.
“Now the government, in a bi-partisan effort are figuring out how to regulate this new space,” Alicandro said. “It’s going to take years—this is not something that’s going to be resolved in weeks or months. Depending on the results … it could have a material impact on these companies right now and similar companies going forward.”
Current antitrust laws have had little impact on Google and other similar technology companies because the industries are still relatively new, according to Alicandro. He said the government has more experience in dealing with telecommunications or utility industries because they are much older and are highly regulated.
“What are they?” Alicandro said, referring to Google, Facebook, Apple, and Amazon. “Are they technology companies? Are they internet companies?” He said that how we view what category these companies fit under impacts how they are regulated.
“If you look at Facebook right now, they are going to enter into the cryptocurrency market, and that’s an unbelievable thing,” he continued. “Every market they enter, they immediately will have an impact on because of their size.”
Alicandro reiterated that it is more difficult for companies in these other, older industries to grow as large as Google through acquisitions, citing the high number of regulations and how the government is more active in jumping in to block potential mergers that could create a monopoly.
“I don’t think this happens in other industries anymore,” he said.
Earlier this year, however, the federal government did fail to block a multibillion-dollar merger between AT&T and Time Warner. The massive deal, worth a reported $85 to $105 billion, could have major implications in the broader media industry.
“The [anti-trust] laws aren’t there because these [tech industries] are relatively new industries,” Alicandro continued. “Entrepreneurship and technologies are cutting edge, it always leads, and then you often see a lawsuit or law-change to catch up with it.”
Epstein, who has spent more than half a decade monitoring Google’s influence, has been in regular touch with some attorneys general who are conducting the probe. He told The Epoch Times previously that Google’s power needs to be curtailed in three main areas: surveillance, censorship, and manipulation.
“The main thing they can do is to levy fines, and the problem is Google can just brush off fines,” he said. “Google has been subjected to more than $8 billion in fines by the EU in the last two years, approximately. But I don’t think these fines will really have the impact that we need to have on Google.”
When asked to comment on the new state probe announced against Google earlier this week, a spokesperson for the company didn’t directly provide a response, instead referring The Epoch Times to a blog post by Kent Walker, Google‘s Senior Vice President of Global Affairs.
“It’s, of course, right that governments should have oversight to ensure that all successful companies, including ours, are complying with the law,” Walker wrote in a Sept. 6 post.
Walker said that the company has answered many questions in this regard over the years in both the United States and overseas, adding that this was “not new” to them, “We have always worked constructively with regulators and we will continue to do so.”
He said Google is looking forward to showing the public how they are “engaging in robust and fair competition.”