Nearly every state attorney general in the country has signed onto an antitrust investigation of Google that’s set to be unveiled Monday afternoon on the steps of the Supreme Court, according to a person familiar with the probe.
The huge contingent of AGs gives major political heft to the probe, which POLITICO and others have reported is in the works. Republican Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton and a group of his state counterparts will announce they’re investigating Google’s power in the online advertising market, and they’ll make a plea at Monday’s press conference for Google employees to come forward with any evidence that the company has abused its dominant position, according to the person, who requested anonymity to share details ahead of the official announcement.
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“I can’t remember the last time you had just about everybody get on the train,” said William Kovacic, a former FTC chairman under President George W. Bush. “It provides somewhat of a greater degree of political support and power behind it in terms of resourcing.”
“It’s going to be a very bad day for Google,” tweeted Sen. Josh Hawley (R-Mo.), who investigated Google as Missouri’s attorney general.
The state-level action heightens the peril for Google, which is already under intense scrutiny in Washington over how it conducts its business. And it’s another sign of the bipartisan nature of the pressure on the nation’s biggest tech companies, with both Republicans and Democrats represented in the group of state AGs conducting the investigation.
The Justice Department’s antitrust division, under Makan Delrahim, unveiled its own plans in July to probe whether major social media, search and e-commerce companies have grown too dominant. Days later, Delrahim and U.S. Attorney General William Barr huddled with state enforcers to talk tech competition concerns.
The states’ probe into Google is considered a parallel but separate effort from the Justice Department’s inquiry into the search giant, but they could ultimately intersect, said the person familiar with the probe. Facebook has attracted the attention of another grouping of states, led by New York AG Tish James, a Democrat.
“This adds a whole different level of complexity for both Facebook and Google to deal with because they’re dealing with potentially many different investigations, not all of which may be coordinated,” said Robert Litan, who was principal deputy assistant attorney general in the DOJ’s antitrust division during the Clinton administration. “All I know is I’m sure this is a major headache for the general counsels of both of these companies.”
While the Google investigation is poised to include nearly all the nation’s state AGs, attorneys general from a core group of eight states are spearheading the probe, and will take the lead in combing through documents and writing briefs or demands for information. The fact that their party affiliations are split evenly between Democrats and Republicans may complicate any accusations from the companies and their supporters that the efforts are politically motivated.
California Attorney General Xavier Becerra, a Democrat, and Alabama Attorney General Steve Marshall, a Republican, were sitting out the Google investigation as of late Friday, the person said, though it’s still possible they could join the probe.
Google has pledged to work with attorneys general to answer questions about its business and the tech sector in general, spokesperson Jose Castaneda told POLITICO. The company acknowledged Friday that the Justice Department is seeking details about antitrust probes of the company that have been previously conducted, and the state AGs may soon ask for similar information.
“We have answered many questions on these issues over many years, in the United States as well as overseas, across many aspects of our business, so this is not new for us,” Kent Walker, Google’s senior vice president of global affairs and chief legal officer, wrote in a blog post Friday.
Kovacic, the former FTC chairman, said he’s not surprised the state AGs are calling on Google’s employees to dish on the company, saying it’s part of the standard playbook in these types of investigations.
“Maybe there are different ways in how you say it and approach people, but that’s the implicit message when you announce inquiries,” he said. “It’s important to give people assurances that you’re serious. If you’re not serious, they are not inclined to cooperate.”
Google has struggled with employee dissent in recent years. Employees have banded together to protest the company’s handling of sexual harassment allegations and its artificial intelligence work with the Defense Department. Google recently told staff to refrain from engaging in disruptive political debates at work.
Silicon Valley is under antitrust pressure on a variety of fronts. Congress is conducting inquiries into competition in online markets. And the FTC’s recently established tech task force has initiated multiple antitrust investigations of tech, including one that Facebook previously disclosed.