Imagine a world in which someone you’ve never met knows more about you than you know about yourself. This person knows which headlines you’ll click on before you click. They know what articles you read, what music you listen to, what shows you watch. They know that you want that flannel shirt you saw yesterday for Christmas. And they remember it all. This isn’t the next popular sci-fi thriller on Netflix. This is the reality of Google today.
The company has become so ubiquitous with searching for (and finding) information that “Google” was added as a verb to the Merriam-Webster dictionary more than 10 years ago. But beyond being a simple internet search engine, the tech giant constructs highly-detailed profiles of users and their online activity with cross-platform data collection. This information is leveraged, in part, for its highly-profitable online-advertising business.
And it doesn’t just gather information. The company is allegedly stifling consumer choice with anti-competition tactics. Rather than making a better product, they are using unfair means to make their product more dominant. Earlier this year, the European Union’s antitrust agency levied a nearly $3 billion fine on Google for manipulating search-engine results to favor the Google platform.
This is why I have issued Civil Investigative Demands — essentially subpoenas — to Google Inc., directing the company to provide information and documents related to my investigation into whether its business practices violate the Missouri Merchandising Practices Act and Missouri’s antitrust laws.
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Along with how it uses the personal information of consumers, we are looking at allegations of “scraping” information. Google has also been accused of lifting and using information from a competitor’s website and using it on its own competing website. This misappropriation hurts businesses and threatens to drive Google’s competitors out of the market, which in turn deprives consumers of the innovation and valuable services provided by competition.
Finally, when they use Google’s search engine, consumers have come to expect that the highest-ranked results for a given search are the most relevant. However, substantial evidence suggests that Google may manipulate the results of the search to list Google-affiliated websites higher in the search results. If true, such conduct may reflect an unlawful attempt to leverage Google’s monopoly power in the search engine market to stifle competition.
In 2013, the Federal Trade Commission decided not to pursue its investigation into Google’s anti-competitive tactics and monopolistic power after the company agreed to voluntary changes to its practices. However, The Wall Street Journal reported in 2015 that after an internal document was inadvertently released as part of a FOIA request, the FTC staff report recommended bringing a lawsuit against the tech giant.
“In its investigation, FTC staff said ‘Google’s conduct ‘helped it to maintain, preserve and enhance Google’s monopoly position in the markets for search and search advertising’ in violation of the law,” the paper reported. This behavior “will have lasting negative effects on consumer welfare.”
This revelation should get the attention of every American who uses the internet, and every American who cares about protecting the little guy. My office is challenging this industry Goliath because a free and fair marketplace keeps consumers safe, and more: It gives the average person with a great idea the chance to change the world. I will not let the interests of powerful corporations close our economy or jeopardize consumers. We are fighting for Missourians. We are fighting for an open and fair economy. We are fighting for the consumer. Someone needs to.
Josh Hawley is attorney general of Missouri.