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Trump At Last Targets the Google Whale

Whatever happens on election day Tuesday, the announcement of U.S. v. Google last month might go down as the bigger moment in history.
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A psychologically-dismantled nation now awaits the result of the election.

The concluding days of the 2020 presidential campaign have been dominated by barnstorming from the incumbent — Donald Trump has maintained a panicked, peripatetic schedule in recent days — and wary confidence on the part of his more slow-and-steady opponent, Joe Biden. The former vice president moved at his own pace over the weekend, along with the president he once served. Barack Obama’s effusive campaigning for Biden this autumn has laid bare his archrivalry with his successor, and the acetous antipathy between America’s latest two presidents. No doubt: a swift and clear resolution on Tuesday will provide a measure of relief to the American people, treating the nation’s year-long panic attack. And the distinction between a restoration of a Democratic Party radicalized by the Trump experience and a vindication of the 45th president despite it all is clear. 

But a more substantial moment in history might have already happened this fall.

“The United States of America, acting under the direction of the Attorney General of the United States… bring this action under Section 2 of the Sherman Act, 15 U.S.C. § 2,” states a lawsuit filed in the U.S. District Court in the District of Columbia. “To restrain Google LLC (Google) from unlawfully maintaining monopolies in the markets for general search services, search advertising, and general search text advertising in the United States through anticompetitive and exclusionary practices, and to remedy the effects of this conduct.”

“Two decades ago, Google became the darling of Silicon Valley as a scrappy startup with an innovative way to search the emerging internet,” the brief reads. “That Google is long gone.” William Barr, the U.S. Attorney General, in conjunction with eleven state attorney generals including from Florida, Texas and Georgia, at last brought into being last month what had long been coveted by facets of the progressive base and the president’s base alike: antitrust action against the big technology firms. It’s U.S. v. Google.

Barr’s move comes as the COVID-19 pandemic rages (and a potential financial correction looms), the U.S. election reaches its crescendo and Washington braces for a potential, major transfer of power. No one knows if this is merely an opening salvo by Barr— and if in a second Trump administration we would see immediate action against Facebook, Twitter, Apple and Amazon, as well. And no one knows if a Biden administration would keep the lawsuit. 

But dropping it all together is seen as unlikely. Democratic state attorney generals have their own plans to join the suit, most crucially New York and its powerful attorney general, Letitia James (who is also licking her chops to prosecute Trump after office). A wholesale withdrawal of the suit by Biden’s attorney general would risk revolt from the progressive left which has long called for a new era of antitrust. 

And such a move — dropping the suit — would likely play too neatly into conservatives’ hands. It is a contingent which would be out for blood in the event of a Trump loss. The right already feels tech has tipped the scales against them in this election, and undermined and even functionally eliminated Trump’s most provocative supporters online. And Biden’s attorney general might also be Elizabeth Warren, a career enthusiast of antitrust who made ramped-up enforcement a centerpiece of her own campaign for president.

The question, then, is about new fronts. “Are they going to get broken up? Yes. Will every single government go after them? Absolutely. State, local, federal … all around the world,” former Facebook vice president Chamath Palihapitiya said in June of the large technology firms. “First, they’ll get taxed to death, then they’ll get trust-busted,” all within a decade, Palihapitya forecasted. If that’s right, the United States has just entered a new age of antitrust. And if so, there are a few ways it could go down. 

The first possibility is a rare, relatively bipartisan moment in politics, which Palihapitiya seems to think could happen, whether it be through litigation or legislation, or both. But another possibility is that Palihapitiya is wrong, in a sense. That is, the age of antitrust could be highly politicized— and less bipartisan than expected. Republicans are generally most suspicious of Google and Twitter. Peter Thiel set the tone on subject in 2019 when he penned a New York Times op-ed condemning the firm. “A.I.’s military power is the simple reason that the recent behavior of America’s leading software company, Google — starting an A.I. lab in China while ending an A.I. contract with the Pentagon — is shocking,” Thiel wrote. Or as his Palintir co-founder Alex Karp has noted of artificial intelligence: “I mean, our product is used, on occasion, to kill people.” 

Trump’s most significant policy legacy has, of course, been getting serious on China. And here, Apple could be in Republican crosshairs, with its manufacturing arrangement with China. Apple and its affiliates have begun shifting to India, doubtless cognizant of which way the political winds are blowing.   Of the firms generally in the crosshairs, Twitter is the least behemoth by market capitalization — $32.71 billion, versus $1.52 trillion for Amazon, $1.53 trillion for Microsoft and $1.86 trillion for Apple, as of Monday morning. But the SF-based firm attracts considerable scrutiny in a media and political class obsessed with it. 

“Who the hell elected you?” Sen. Ted Cruz asked Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey in a remote Hill hearing held last week. Who “put you in charge of what the media are allowed to report and what the American people are allowed to hear, and why do you persist in behaving as a Democratic super PAC silencing views to the contrary of your political beliefs?” Cruz asked. “People have choice of other communication channels,” Dorsey said, also denying Cruz’s characterization. But it was a defense unlikely to keep Washington off his back. 

However, in a potential period of Democratic dominance, it could be Facebook that first gets put to the sword. The party of the donkey still views the 2016 election as tainted, in part because of Russian interference on Facebook. The platform’s user base in the U.S. leans conservative, an uneasy reality for CEO Mark Zuckerberg in overseeing his mostly liberal workforce. Those right-leaning in the tech world, such as 8VC founder Joe Lonsdale, this summer rallied to the platform’s defense. Lonsdale charged that a temporary, popular corporate ad boycott — a so-called “pause on hate” — was “illiberal.” 

Zuckerberg’s political balancing act is a precarious one. Lonsdale, for one, recently turned on him, telling the New York Post: if Facebook really is really applying new restrictions “equally they have a hell of a lot to prove…  Because it’s pretty obvious to most people I talk to, including friends who are Democrats, that Facebook is doing a lot more to help things that are friendly to a left perspective than friendly to a right perspective.”

Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos has publicly feuded with President Trump, owns liberal flagship The Washington Post and has sagely retained the services of former Obama White House press secretary Jay Carney as his principal spox. In this way, he cuts the figure of someone who would remain fat and happy during a Democratic administration. His assignment of Amazon HQ2 to Arlington, Va., inside the beltway — as well as his own, new Kalorama, D.C. mansion a mile from the White House — display his big bets on Washington.

But Amazon’s employment of a significant domestic labor force is a double-edged sword in the political world. On the one hand, congressmen and their districts are happy to have the work. On the other hand, complaints that Amazon treats its workers like robots bedevil the Seattle company, ensnaring in it the Democrats’ considerable labor apparatus. For this reason, Bezos might quietly agree with Axios’ Scott Rosenberg, who wrote Monday morning that big tech doesn’t really care who wins the election. 

“Democrats have their own reasons for pursuing action against the big companies,” Rosenberg says. “But unlike Republicans, they’re less focused on claims of censorship and more on the concentration of corporate power and the spread of misinformation.”    

And, big tech, of course, could win. Republicans and Democrats could fritter away political capital by squabbling. And there is also the matter of dissension in the ranks. 

Zuckerberg is open to revisions to Section 230, which significantly shields these firms from liability. Some smell a rouse. “He made his money, and now he wants to pull up the ladder behind him,” Sen. Ron Wyden, the provision’s original author, told the Times’ Ben Smith this past weekend. “The fact that Facebook, of all companies, is calling for changes to 230 makes you say, ‘Wait a second.’”

“There is a mythology in history,” Trump outside economic advisor Steve Moore told Glenn Beck in June. “The idea that Henry Ford, and John D. Rockefeller, [Andrew] Carnegie, these amazing, amazing Americans who built this country are robber-barrons is crazy. They are the people who built the railroads, built our energy industry, built our banking system and made American the great country that we are. … If you’ve got companies that are giving people thing they want: how can Google be a monopoly? Google doesn’t cost me anything. I can go on Google and find any information that I want and they don’t even charge me for it.”

What is certain is a new war is going to happen, even if the combatants aren’t fully yet clear. This is a shift in some ways from the age of personality that were the Trump and Obama years. But with Barr’s lawsuit, the war has already begun.