Tech

Google's long-time rivals say DOJ antitrust suit shows it's lost its 'halo' in the eyes of regulators

Key Points
  • The Justice Department's new antitrust lawsuit against Google has given some of the tech company's long-time rivals a level of validation.
  • Yelp's Luther Lowe and Foundem's Shivaun Raff have pushed regulators to look into Google's competitive practices for about a decade.
  • Three Google opponents called the lawsuit a good first step, though they hope state attorneys general will expand the case.
Foundem creators Shivaun and Adam Raff stand outside of the European Court of Justice for Google's appeal hearing in its competition case in 2020.
Shivaun Raff

When Shivaun Raff began speaking with European regulators about her complaints of Google's exclusionary conduct over a decade ago, she seemed to stand more or less alone.

"Where is everyone?" she recalled regulatory staff asking her and her husband/co-founder at the time. "Why are you the first people that have come to talk to us?"

In 2020, Raff is far from alone in her complaints against Google. Though her vertical search start-up Foundem was the lead complainant in the European Union's investigation into Google's shopping comparison business, many others have joined her fight in the years since.

Rivals from around the world have gone public with their complaints that Google unfairly wields its dominance in internet search to edge out competitors, among complaints about its opaque advertising business. And as the chorus of criticism has grown louder, Google's glow in the eyes of those with the power to rein it in has dimmed.

"In normal cases, the first barrier to overcome was the Google halo effect, where people almost didn't view Google back then as a business. People almost viewed it as some sort of public nonprofit," Raff said. "Now I think that halo effect has been very much diminished."

There may be no greater demonstration of that than the Justice Department's new lawsuit against Google that alleges the company illegally maintains its monopoly in general search through anticompetitive practices and exclusionary agreements. The lawsuit, filed Tuesday, marks the first time Google has been sued by the federal government in the U.S. The Federal Trade Commission declined to bring a lawsuit after closing its own investigation in 2013, though other governments have continued to probe and fine Google.

A Google spokesperson pointed to its blog post responding to the DOJ complaint and calling it "deeply flawed." In the post, Google's top lawyer Kent Walker says the company has promotional agreements with device makers and phone carriers to feature it's services, but that they often also pre-load competing services that are easy for users to switch to. Walker also wrote that such agreements allow Google to offer Android for free, which he claimed contributes to lower phone prices for consumers.

The widespread complaints against Google have formed something of a cottage industry of opponents who have dedicated a large chunk of their careers to convincing regulators to take on the company.

Foundem suspended service at the end of 2016 and its entire site is now devoted to talking about Google's alleged harm to search competition. Links from Foundem's home page labeled for search categories like "LCD Televisions" and "Flights" all lead to a notice of the company's temporary suspension, with links and information about their case.

Luther Lowe, the senior vice president of public policy for Yelp, has also been pushing regulators to go after Google for about a decade. He started at Yelp about 12 years ago as a sales rep, but moved into public policy work as Yelp's relationship with Google began to sour. He said the role wasn't always so focused on antitrust, which he said in a March interview was then taking up about 80% of his time. In his early policy work, he mainly stayed focused on educating lawmakers about Yelp and advocating for policies protecting free speech, he said.

Luther Lowe is the Senior Vice President of Public Policy at Yelp.
Source: Luther Lowe

Lowe said that in 2011, he began to realize the role that antitrust enforcement could play in reforming a giant like Google. Yelp had complained to a gathering of attorneys general that year that Google was using its reviews in its own products without Yelp's consent. Google had refused to change its practice of scraping content, Lowe said — until shortly after that meeting, when Google, in his telling, told Yelp it would stop.

"The lightbulb kind of went off of," Lowe said. "In antitrust, your weakness is your strength. It's sort of the judo of public policy. The A word is the one thing that Google respects. And I think that kind of began our long journey."

Still, for several years, it was an uphill battle to convince regulators and lawmakers they should care about Yelp's complaints. Once the FTC closed its investigation, Lowe said that even much of Yelp's legal team "kind of rotated off of it."

As the Google shopping case in Europe neared its close, things seemed bleak for Lowe and Raff. The competition commissioner at the time reached a settlement agreement with Google that would've been far from the remedy its rivals had hoped for.

But before the settlement could be cleared by the European Commission, a new competition enforcer took over and reinvigorated the case. In 2015, Margrethe Vestager charged Google with giving its own shopping service preferential treatment in search over rivals'. In 2017, it slapped Google with a $2.7 billion fine for its practices. Google's appeal of that fine is still ongoing.

It's remained important to antitrust advocates like Lowe and Raff to see charges filed against Google by its home country.

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"America is very important," Raff said in an interview Thursday. "It's very important because if you can re-galvanize your antitrust enforcement and bring it back to the world leader that it used to be, then from America other dominos will fall."

Lowe said in an interview Thursday that regulators in other markets "were kind of pulling punches" because the U.S. had yet to show through its enforcement or policies "that these U.S. companies are anything but beloved, great American champions of innovation."

The DOJ suit and other actions from policymakers, he said, "sends the message [to other countries] that we're not going to screw you in some trade agreement if you want to take the gloves off with this company because we're going after them ourselves."

To be sure, not every one of Google's rivals has been as proactive as Lowe and Raff. DuckDuckGo CEO Gabriel Weinberg, for example, said in an interview Friday that his company has kept much of its focus on privacy concerns that are core to its business ethos. But, he said, the company has been more than willing to engage with regulators when asked.

Weinberg said his concerns about Google's dominance piqued when DuckDuckGo began building out its search engine for Android devices and realized how difficult it would be for consumers to make its product the default engine on the devices. He said consumers should be equipped with the knowledge and ability to opt for more privacy-focused services like his if they want to. The DOJ argues in its lawsuit that Google's default position on Android and other places has entrenched its monopoly power and degraded the quality of search for consumers.

All three agreed the DOJ lawsuit is a good first step and they hope the state attorneys general who are continuing to investigate will build on the case even further.

They're aware that a resolution could still be years away and are far from taking victory laps, but the lawsuit is something of validation of their years of work.

Raff explained the fight against Google has been deeply personal. When Google seemed like it would be able to settle with the European Commission, she said she felt as if she'd have to tell her nieces and nephews, "we started the process that broke the internet."

"Whilst competition enforcement in the U.S. has been disappointing … I think we're poised on the brink of a real resurgence," Raff said.

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WATCH: U.S. Department of Justice files antitrust suit against Google

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