Several interested parties in the U.S. government have been looking to put Google’s head on a spike, and while undoubtedly there’s been some degree of jockeying between them for which will ultimately get the credit, they’ve been proceeding with care and caution in the interest of building an ironclad case against a particularly canny opponent. Leave it to Bill Barr — who in a better world would instead star in a live-action remake of Droopy Dog — to take all that hard work and piss it away.
Per reporting in the New York Times, “Justice Department officials told lawyers involved in the antitrust inquiry into Alphabet […] to wrap up their work by the end of September.” These lawyers apparently viewed the new, abrupt deadline — against an enormously powerful company with nearly unlimited resources to throw at a comprehensive legal defence — as “arbitrary.”
In all likeliness it’s anything but arbitrary. As we near the general election in November, the Trump camp is looking for a win to hang its hat on. We’ve already seen the president decide — seemingly mid-interview with Axios’s Jonathan Swan — to cut the number of troops deployed in Afghanistan by half, and likewise claim during his keynote speech at the RNC that he will release a covid-19 vaccine. Not coincidentally, both of these miraculous claims are projected (by Trump and seemingly only Trump) to come to fruition around November. Breaking up Google, which is increasingly a source of ire for Republicans and Democrats (albeit for wildly different reasons) appears to be a gambit by Barr to find that win — or at least the appearance of one.
We’ve reached out to Google and the Department of Justice for comment and will update if we hear back.
As mentioned, the DOJ isn’t the only game in town where fining, regulating, or otherwise frustrating Google’s market dominance is concerned. A coalition of 50 state attorneys general is also probing the company, while the FTC, the House’s Antitrust Subcommittee, and the Senate Antitrust Subcommittee have ongoing investigations more broadly into the practices of big tech. All have been gathering evidence for a year or more, which is what makes Barr’s hastiness particularly egregious. Per the Times:
Some lawyers in the department worry that Mr. Barr’s determination to bring a complaint this month could weaken their case and ultimately strengthen Google’s hand, according to interviews with 15 lawyers who worked on the case or were briefed on the department’s strategy […] Many career staff members in the antitrust division, including more than a dozen who were hired during the Trump administration, considered the evidence solid that Google’s search and advertising businesses violated antitrust law. But some told associates that Mr. Barr was forcing them to come up with “half-baked” cases so he could unveil a complaint by Sept. 30.
As is the case with most would-be totalitarians, the appearance of strength for Trump is often pursued at the expense of actually wielding power effectively. If true, Barr’s reported plan to jump the gun on a Google antitrust case is a prime example. By looking the part and going after Google now, he would be likely to undermine the other existing cases against the company. If, say, Google manages to dodge claims by the DOJ of a monopoly on web search advertising (of which it controls more than 90% of the market), that becomes precedent the FTC or House needs to overcome to prove said monopoly exists.
Regulating big tech — and regulating it in a smart and comprehensive way — would be a steep uphill climb in the best of political climates. Leave it to Trump and his lackeys to carve that hill into a sheer cliff face and slather it in grease. Maybe someone else will clean it up.