Sens. Josh Hawley (R-MO) and Richard Blumenthal (D-CT) sent a letter to Attorney General William Barr on Tuesday asking the Department of Justice (DOJ) to ensure that the agency’s antitrust investigation looks into Google’s search operations.
The two senators noted in their letter that the European Union fined Google $2.7 billion for manipulating search results and a Federal Trade Commission (FTC) investigation, which found that the search giant manipulated its search algorithm as early as 2012.
The senators wrote:
Google enjoys market dominance in online advertising, but it has that dominance in substantial part because of its enormous search engine market share. Google’s online advertising conduct is inextricably linked to Google’s search activities. It is critical to remember that the company’s primary function is supplying a search engine to users, producing billions of search results for Americans every week. Narrowing the investigation’s focus such that Google’s anticompetitive practices to dominate the online search market is not captured does a grave disservice to consumers.
Hawley has served as one of the more vocal big tech lawmakers. He was the first attorney general to launch an antitrust investigation into Google and has called on the FTC to release its full 2012 report on Google’s anticompetitive practices. The Missouri populist has proposed to reform the FTC by folding it into the DOJ, which would make it more accountable and make it easier to crack down on anticompetitive behavior.
The senators continued, noting that search engine manipulation could lead to dominance in the market:
Anticompetitive conduct in search engines is especially pernicious because it can ensure permanent, illicit dominance. Because of Google’s market share, it receives far more data than other search engines—data that it can use to improve its algorithm. Once a search engine obtains dominance through anticompetitive means, it may never be possible for other companies to build a truly competitive product absent antitrust enforcement.
However, because Google’s advertising operations are in many ways downstream of its search operations, an investigation that focuses only on online advertisements risks failing to address the primary source of anticompetitive conduct.
Hawley and Blumenthal’s letter to Barr arises as the Senate Judiciary Committee plans to hold a hearing on Tuesday to consider the degree to which companies such as Google prefer their own businesses to their competitors on their own platforms.
Luther Lowe, Yelp’s senior vice president of public policy, said in prepared testimony to the Senate Judiciary Committee on Tuesday that the DOJ needs to include Google’s manipulation of its search engine. He explained:
You can’t look at Standard Oil without looking at oil; you cannot investigate Google without looking at search. That is what makes today’s hearing — on the self-serving bias of companies like Google — so important. Dominant internet platforms like Google enjoy enormous market power. For
years, Google, in particular, has biased its results to serve its interests and leverage its power to entrench it further and hurt consumers in the process.
“We urge the Department, in its antitrust investigation into Google, to consider comprehensively Google’s practices in the search market,” the senators concluded in their letter to Barr.