The last update to our chronological compendium of Google’s harmful misdeeds ended with an October 2020 bombshell, as the United States Department of Justice formally charged the company with antitrust violations related to its search and advertising businesses.
Since then, we’ve seen the ramifications of this federal antitrust lawsuit rapidly unfold. As one expert told Bloomberg Law, the case was “likely to trigger an onslaught of private antitrust lawsuits riding on the allegations in the government’s complaint” – and boy, was he right.
Along with waves of new allegations of employee discrimination, child pornography, dispersion of malware, and other conflagrations, there have been nine new headlines pertaining to antitrust. These cover not one, not two, but three large-scale lawsuits filed by the U.S. government, numerous international investigations, and dozens more cases brought by private entities ranging from streaming video sites to newspapers.
There is so much antitrust action swimming around Google, we figured we need to color-code it. Every time you see a headline highlighted in yellow? That’s a friendly reminder that Google is a harmful monopoly and that pretty much the entire world is sick of it.
Where does this all end? Will Google ultimately be broken up? Will the governments of the world find other remedies for all these problems? Will Google turn over a new leaf (are there enough trees to get the job done)? It’s difficult to say at this time – but one thing is certain: The floodgates are open – and Google is running out of life jackets.
October 22, 2020
Today, Bloomberg Law lays out a grim legal future for Google, predicting that the U.S. monopoly case brought against the search giant on October 20 is “likely to trigger an onslaught of private antitrust lawsuits riding on the allegations in the government’s complaint.” One lawyer specializing in consumer class action litigation even predicts: “Within a week, there’ll be a hundred private cases filed.” That figure sounds high, but it has precedent – at one point, Microsoft faced more than 150 lawsuits simultaneously after it was slapped with federal antitrust charges in the late ‘90s.
October 27, 2020
Whether the hundred private lawsuits emerge or not, there is more than enough public antitrust action to keep Google busy. Today, Italy opens an investigation into Google’s “alleged abuse of its dominant position in the Italian online display market,” reports Reuters. The specifics of the charge are becoming awfully familiar: Google used “enormous amounts of data collected through its own applications to prevent rival operators from competing effectively.”
October 28, 2020
Today, Google CEO Sundar Pichai makes yet another trip to the Hill, joining his fellow Big Tech bigwigs for another virtual hearing before Congress. The topic this time is Section 230, the safe harbor that shields internet companies from liability for harmful user activity on their platforms. Just days before an incredibly contentious election, the event is dominated by partisan talking points, but one unifying theme comes through loud and clear: elected officials across the board have a “lingering, widespread unease,” reports The Washington Post, “with the political and economic leverage [that Google, Facebook, and Twitter] have amassed and the ways they seek to wield it.”
November 9, 2020
So far, we have seen antitrust suits against Google over everything from its alleged market abuse of display ads to its unfair deals with phone makers. Today, India’s antitrust watchdog adds a new wrinkle, opening an investigation into Google’ payments service. The probe, reports TechCrunch, joins two other potential Google antitrust inquiries in India over “allegedly abusing the dominance of Android in the smart TV market, and dominance of Android in the mobile market.”
November 12, 2020
Here is a hint – its name begins with “G” and ends with “oogle”. Today, a study by NortonLifelock Research Group and IMDEA Software Institute reveals that, while 87% of all app installs emanated from Google’s Play Store, 67% of all malicious apps also emanate from the Play Store. “That isn’t to say the Play Store is lacking in security to stop malicious apps,” reports PC Mag, “but the sheer size and popularity of Google’s store means any that slip through the cracks are going to reach a very wide audience.” The same could be said about misinformation, hate speech, piracy, and all the other elements of Google’s toxic cesspool. The company is simply too big to control the spread of harm by its users.
December 2, 2020
After a relatively quiet November on the Google scandal front, December begins with a bang as the U.S. National Labor Relations Board files a complaint alleging the company “illegally terminated and surveilled employees,” reports CNBC. The agency also accuses the company of blocking workers from “sharing work grievances and information with each other….” But hey, at least those cafeteria omelet bars are top-notch, right? Nope, no good – Google is keeping its workforce at home through summer 2021. Make your own damn omelets.
December 3, 2020
Turns out the NLRB’s accusations are only the beginnings of Google’s HR woes this month. Today, The Washington Post reports on Timnit Gebru, a leading artificial-intelligence computer scientist who Google “abruptly fired… for sending an email criticizing the company’s treatment of minority employees”. One of the few black women in her field, Gebru had spearheaded crucial research into facial recognition software bias against people of color. Firing her seemingly without cause is not only a very bad look – it brings up urgent questions about, as Wired puts it, “the racial homogeneity of the AI workforce and the inefficacy of corporate diversity programs to the center of the discourse.” And AI is no longer limited to the lab… it’s loose in the world, and AI-driven systems “make determinations that directly shape lives, at the same time that they are embedded in organizations structured to reinforce histories of racial discrimination.”
December 4, 2020
Today, a devastating New York Times piece exposes some of the horrific abuse being monetized by online pornography sites such as Pornhub. “The problem goes far beyond one company,” writes the Times’ Nicholas Kristof. “Google returns 920 million videos on a search for ‘young porn.’ Top hits include a video of a naked ‘very young teen’ engaging in sex acts on XVideo along with a video on Pornhub whose title is unprintable here.” What is left to be said? If any other company in any other industry were enabling such horrors, it would be shut down immediately. At Google, it is all in a day’s work.
December 10, 2020
Google’s global surveillance operation gets dinged today when France’s data protection authority, CNIL, slaps the company with a $121 million (100 million Euro) fine “over the way it manages cookies on its search engine,” writes Bloomberg. At issue is the “allegedly harmful way people’s data is being processed in advertising transactions.” Though the monetary amount is a relative pittance to a company valued at north of a trillion dollars, it comes with an ultimatum: Google must better inform users about how their data is being used within three months or it will face additional fines of 100,000 euros per day. It also shows that the European Union is getting more and more serious about holding Google accountable.
December 15, 2020
And now the European Union is getting really serious about holding Google accountable. Today, the European Commission unveils sweeping new competition rules that threaten tech giants like Google with up to “ten percent of their total worldwide annual turnover,” writes The Hill, “or be forced to sell off portions of their businesses.” Dubbed the Digital Markets Act and Digital Services Act, the new rules focus on forcing internet gatekeepers to, respectively, ensure “fair and open digital markets” and remove harmful and illegal content. Ultimately, the two proposals “serve one purpose”, said EU commissioner Margrethe Vestager: “to make sure that we, as users, have access to a wide choice of safe products and services online.”
December 16, 2020
Today, a group of state attorneys general led by Texas files a new antitrust suit targeting Google’s advertising technology services. Where the earlier case from the Department of Justice focuses on the company’s search domination, this one, reports CNBC, “claims Google unlawfully acquired, attempted to acquire, or maintained a monopoly in several steps of the online ad market including both buy and sell sides.” But the filing’s real headline-grabber is its allegation that Google teamed up with Facebook to harm competition “through an unlawful agreement to rig auctions and fix prices.” What’s next – a partnership between Lex Luthor and Doctor Doom?
December 17, 2020
On the heels of yesterday’s multi-state complaint, another group of 38 states and territories has handed Google “its third government antitrust lawsuit in less than two months,” CNBC today reports. This latest addition to the litigation pile claims that “Google illegally maintained a monopoly in general search and search advertising through anticompetitive conduct and contracts.” The allegation has similarities to the DOJ’s original suit, filed last October, but digs deeper into the company’s wheelings and dealings, including how they have impacted news publishers. The “core charge is that publishers all over the country have been routinely ripped off,” says Wall Street Journal owner, News Corp, in a statement, “which is bad news for freedom of the press, journalism and an informed society”.
December 23, 2020
Reuters today reports that Google’s “new review procedure” discourages its in-house scientists from “casting its technology in a negative light” in their research. The story follows the company’s recent dismissal of respected AI researcher Timnit Gebru, who claimed “Google fired her after she questioned an order not to publish research claiming AI that mimics speech could disadvantage marginalized populations.” This continues a disturbing pattern of Google interfering with crucial studies of its own potential technology harms.
January 4, 2021
Years of Google employee activism – much of it chronicled on this very timeline – culminate today as more than 400 of the company’s engineers and other workers form a union. Of course, Google has one of the world’s best-paid workforces, and the new Alphabet Workers Union is less interested in new contract negotiations than it is in giving “structure and longevity to activism at Google,” reports The New York Times. “Our issues are going much broader,” said one engineer. “It is a time where a union is an answer to these problems.”
January 11, 2021
Today, the streaming video site Rumble sues Google in federal court in California for allegedly “[tilting] search engine results toward its sister company YouTube,” reports Bloomberg Law. The lawsuit “is the latest of dozens launched by competitors, publishers, advertisers, and consumers alleging a wide array of anti-competitive tactics aimed at cornering the online search and advertising markets.” You may remember that back in this timeline’s October 22 entry, one legal expert predicted “an onslaught of private antitrust lawsuits” against Google, by claimants emboldened by multiple public suits from the DOJ and others. That onslaught has clearly begun, and it is growing fast.
January 22, 2021
Sometimes the only thing that seems able to really slow a corporate behemoth like Google is… one of its fellow corporate behemoths. Today, Forbes speculates that Apple’s pending move to require user opt-in to its advertiser identifier could cost Google’s search business as much as $17 billion over the next 12 months. Apple’s Identifier for Advertisers (IDFA) is what allows companies like Google and Facebook to track users’ every move, and it is how they personalize ads so efficiently to our unique history, interests, and activity. Without it, Google’s global surveillance operation cannot function properly.
January 26, 2021
There isn’t much that Americans agree on anymore, but one thing that seems to transcend partisanship is the movement to break up Big Tech. Today, Vox reports that some 59% of people surveyed in its new poll support the growing number of lawsuits designed to limit the size and power of companies like Google and Facebook. Sure, voters’ motivations for backing the efforts vary widely, but the general sentiment is that “the economic power of these tech companies is a problem facing the US economy,” writes Vox. And that’s a big problem for Big Tech.
February 4, 2021
Today’s addition to the growing Google antitrust pile feels particularly noteworthy – and not only because it comes from an unlikely state like West Virginia. The federal lawsuit is also “the first of its kind filed by a news outlet,” reports The Wall Street Journal – namely, HD Media LLC, the owner of West Virginia’s largest newspaper, the Charleston Gazette-Mail. Fed up with having ad revenue “siphoned away”, HD Media owner Doug Reynolds “felt the political and legal climate have moved in our favor,” he told WSJ, and so they have taken up a court battle with a company that is “more powerful than Standard Oil in its heyday.”
February 5, 2021
Led by Senator Mark R. Warner (D-VA), three senators today announce a new bill to “reform Section 230 and allow social media companies to be held accountable for enabling cyber-stalking, targeted harassment, and discrimination on their platforms.” The Safeguarding Against Fraud, Exploitation, Threats, Extremism and Consumer Harms (SAFE TECH) Act seeks to hold companies like Google accountable “for harmful, often criminal behavior enabled by their platforms to which they have turned a blind eye for too long.” By creating targeted exceptions to Section 230’s broad immunity, the law has the potential to usher in a new era for “the safety and civil rights of Americans and people around the world, as well as our democracy,” said co-sponsor Senator Amy Klobuchar (D-MN). Is now the time?
February 19, 2021
Already in hot water for its ouster of star AI researcher Timnit Gebru, Google’s method of dealing with the heat appears to be by fanning the flames. Axios reports today on the company’s firing of yet another leader in artificial intelligence, Margaret Mitchell. The co-head of Google’s “ethical AI” team, Mitchell had “posted a tweet critical of Google’s handling of Gebru and a subsequent meeting between CEO Sundar Pichai and historically Black college and university leaders.” Sure, maybe she should not have bitten the hand that fed her, but on the flipside, maybe Google should stop canning its best employees for publicly calling out its own terrible behavior – especially those employees trying to make its incredibly powerful automated systems more equitable for all of us.
Our Collective Quality of Life
Of course, the harms outlined in the SAFE TECH Act are directly tied to Google’s monopoly power. The company’s ability to crush competition and dominate its marketplace prevents other, more responsible search engines from rising and giving us a better alternative. Yes, Google needs legal incentive to change its ways, but its primary motive is economic. As long as it can make money hand over fist without fear of being driven down by competitors, it has no real reason to change.
Tweaking the legal safe harbors that let Google off the hook for the crimes of its users is a step in the right direction – but Google’s problems (or, more specifically, the problems Google helps to inflict on society) run deep. We have seen the company announce a variety of changes in response to pressure from both politicians and consumers, but they barely scrape the surface of what’s needed. As the public and private pressure continues to mount, it feels like something has to break at Google.
Maybe even break up…