Bipartisanship Works in State Attorneys General Lawsuits Against Big Tech’s Google and Facebook

In late 2020, state and federal consumer cops filed several enforcement actions against the powerful Big Tech platforms Google and Facebook over practices alleged to violate antitrust and competition laws.  What is notable about these efforts is the degree of bipartisanship and collaboration involved. Ideally, Congress will find a way to follow the bipartisan lead of the state consumer cops and make its continued investigations and actions against the Big Tech firms that now dominate the economy more effective.

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Ed Mierzwinski
Senior Director, Federal Consumer Program

Author: Ed Mierzwinski

Senior Director, Federal Consumer Program

202-461-3821

Started on staff: 1977
B.A., M.S., University of Connecticut

Ed oversees U.S. PIRG’s federal consumer program, helping to lead national efforts to improve consumer credit reporting laws, identity theft protections, product safety regulations and more. Ed is co-founder and continuing leader of the coalition, Americans For Financial Reform, which fought for the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act of 2010, including as its centerpiece the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. He was awarded the Consumer Federation of America's Esther Peterson Consumer Service Award in 2006, Privacy International's Brandeis Award in 2003, and numerous annual "Top Lobbyist" awards from The Hill and other outlets. Ed lives in Virginia, and on weekends he enjoys biking with friends on the many local bicycle trails.

In late 2020, state and federal consumer cops filed several enforcement actions against the powerful Big Tech platforms Google and Facebook over practices alleged to violate antitrust and competition laws. 

The cases could result in requiring the firms to change their behavior, sell certain divisions or both to ensure that the marketplace is fair. Consumers should not face higher prices or lower quality due to monopoly tactics. Competitors’ ability to succeed should not be crushed by predatory or exclusionary tactics.  

What is notable about these efforts is the degree of bipartisanship and collaboration involved. Ideally, Congress will find a way to follow the bipartisan lead of the state consumer cops and make its continued investigations and actions against the Big Tech firms that now dominate the economy more effective.

Indeed, the latest state cases against Google and Facebook are broadly bipartisan. On December 17, an enforcement action against Google was filed by at least 38 state and territorial attorneys general led by Phil Weiser, Democrat of Colorado, and Doug Peterson, Republican of Nebraska (theverge.com).

On December 9, New York Attorney General Letitia James announced an enforcement action against Facebook by 48 state and territorial attorneys general. 

These actions reflect the views of a majority of likely American voters, on a trans-partisan basis, that the Big Tech platforms, also including Amazon and others, need to be reined in or broken up (December 2020 poll).

U.S. PIRG and the state PIRGs will do everything we can to support efforts to rein in the alleged violations of the antitrust laws by the powerful Big Tech platforms.  

Our main antitrust laws were written after the powerful 19th century oil baron John D. Rockefeller used his control of Big Oil to assert monopoly control over the entire U.S. economy.

Today, Big Tech has weaponized Big Data against consumers and competitors. 

Big Data is the new Big Oil. 

Using data to control consumers and competitors is the way Big Tech maintains illegal market power.

Colorado PIRG’s Danny Katz explained how Big Tech invades your privacy and then uses your data to manipulate you in a January webinar with Attorneys General Weiser and Peterson and Diana Moss of the American Antitrust Institute. From the KOAA-TV Colorado Springs

"Colorado consumer experts say big tech companies are able to leverage our data keeping users in the dark creating major privacy concerns. 'That's a lot of data and it's not just you, it's your friends, it's folks who are like you and it really allows them to predict what you're interested in, what will keep your attention,' said Danny Katz, consumer watchdog for Colorado Public Interest Research Group. 'Once your information gets out there it's out there and it's scary enough to think someone took it from some company, but it's actually even more worrisome for me to know that there's a company that's taking it from me and then giving it to somebody else and somebody else. That's just their business model and I didn't have any say in that.' Full webinar video online."

Big Tech makes a false and outrageous claim that the Internet is free. It isn’t free for consumers. We pay with our data. We pay with our personal data and the continuous corporate surveillance of our lives (we lack privacy, or more exactly, any digital rights). 

Big Data is also used to attack competitors. Consumers want more privacy, but anticompetitive practices by Big Tech lock privacy-oriented innovators out. As the Colorado/Nebraska-led lawsuit says:

“Google’s general search services collect massive amounts of data from consumers and provide that data to advertisers. Existing search engine DuckDuckGo prides itself on providing greater privacy protection. Neeva is a nascent future general search service that is creating an advertising-free search engine (and one that, without advertising, collects less personal data).”

The tech giants look at a smaller, more innovative company and make a binary choice. They ask “is that something we want to buy or something we want to kill?” They can kill an innovative, so-called nascent competitor in a lot of different ways: deny it interoperability, use predatory pricing to choke it to death, etc.

If they buy it, there’s less innovation going forward. NPR: “The attorneys general allege that the [Facebook] deals for Instagram and WhatsApp broke competition law. Prosecutors are asking a federal court to intervene by possibly forcing a sale or spinoff of those apps.”

Google began acquiring its potential competitors years earlier. In 2007, U.S. PIRG joined the Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC) and the Center for Digital Democracy to urge the FTC to deny its acquisition of DoubleClick, which gave it sweeping control of the online adtech market. We requested: 

“that the Commission open an investigation into the proposed acquisition, specifically with regard to the ability of Google to record, analyze, track, and profile the activities of Internet users with data that is both personally identifiable and data that is not personally identifiable.”

Instead, the FTC allowed the acquisition and today a rebranded DoubleClick powers much of Google’s dominant search and digital marketing functions.

There’s a lot more to say about privacy, digital rights and the use of Big Data to control the economy. As we noted recently, it’s not only a problem that the Big Tech platform companies may be abusing the antitrust and competition laws, but it's also a problem that other Big Tech companies, such as dating and health apps, may be violating our privacy. The common link is their control of our data. Watch for more on our efforts both to protect privacy and to rein in the powerful platform companies.

Cover image via Flickr, by Gabriel Lasso, Big Data Analytics, Public Domain

Screenshot of Danny Katz, From Colorado Attorney General’s Youtube page.

Ed Mierzwinski
Senior Director, Federal Consumer Program

Author: Ed Mierzwinski

Senior Director, Federal Consumer Program

202-461-3821

Started on staff: 1977
B.A., M.S., University of Connecticut

Ed oversees U.S. PIRG’s federal consumer program, helping to lead national efforts to improve consumer credit reporting laws, identity theft protections, product safety regulations and more. Ed is co-founder and continuing leader of the coalition, Americans For Financial Reform, which fought for the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act of 2010, including as its centerpiece the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. He was awarded the Consumer Federation of America's Esther Peterson Consumer Service Award in 2006, Privacy International's Brandeis Award in 2003, and numerous annual "Top Lobbyist" awards from The Hill and other outlets. Ed lives in Virginia, and on weekends he enjoys biking with friends on the many local bicycle trails.