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The populists are on the march, and as the 2018 campaign season gets rolling we’re witnessing more examples of political opportunism bolstered by economic illiteracy aimed at increasingly unpopular big tech firms.

The latest example comes in the form of a new investigation of Google opened by Missouri’s Attorney General, Josh Hawley. Mr. Hawley — a Republican who, not coincidentally, is running for Senate in 2018alleges various consumer protection violations and unfair competition practices.

But while Hawley’s investigation may jump start his campaign and help a few vocal Google rivals intent on mobilizing the machinery of the state against the company, it is unlikely to enhance consumer welfare — in Missouri or anywhere else.  

According to the press release issued by the AG’s office:

[T]he investigation will seek to determine if Google has violated the Missouri Merchandising Practices Act—Missouri’s principal consumer-protection statute—and Missouri’s antitrust laws.  

The business practices in question are Google’s collection, use, and disclosure of information about Google users and their online activities; Google’s alleged misappropriation of online content from the websites of its competitors; and Google’s alleged manipulation of search results to preference websites owned by Google and to demote websites that compete with Google.

Mr. Hawley’s justification for his investigation is a flourish of populist rhetoric:

We should not just accept the word of these corporate giants that they have our best interests at heart. We need to make sure that they are actually following the law, we need to make sure that consumers are protected, and we need to hold them accountable.

But Hawley’s “strong” concern is based on tired retreads of the same faulty arguments that Google’s competitors (Yelp chief among them), have been plying for the better part of a decade. In fact, all of his apparent grievances against Google were exhaustively scrutinized by the FTC and ultimately rejected or settled in separate federal investigations in 2012 and 2013.

The antitrust issues

To begin with, AG Hawley references the EU antitrust investigation as evidence that

this is not the first-time Google’s business practices have come into question. In June, the European Union issued Google a record $2.7 billion antitrust fine.

True enough — and yet, misleadingly incomplete. Missing from Hawley’s recitation of Google’s antitrust rap sheet are the following investigations, which were closed without any finding of liability related to Google Search, Android, Google’s advertising practices, etc.:

  • United States FTC, 2013. The FTC found no basis to pursue a case after a two-year investigation: “Challenging Google’s product design decisions in this case would require the Commission — or a court — to second-guess a firm’s product design decisions where plausible procompetitive justifications have been offered, and where those justifications are supported by ample evidence.” The investigation did result in a consent order regarding patent licensing unrelated in any way to search and a voluntary commitment by Google not to engage in certain search-advertising-related conduct.
  • South Korea FTC, 2013. The KFTC cleared Google after a two-year investigation. It opened a new investigation in 2016, but, as I have discussed, “[i]f anything, the economic conditions supporting [the KFTC’s 2013] conclusion have only gotten stronger since.”
  • Canada Competition Bureau, 2016. The CCB closed a three-year long investigation into Google’s search practices without taking any action.

Similar investigations have been closed without findings of liability (or simply lie fallow) in a handful of other countries (e.g., Taiwan and Brazil) and even several states (e.g., Ohio and Texas). In fact, of all the jurisdictions that have investigated Google, only the EU and Russia have actually assessed liability.

As Beth Wilkinson, outside counsel to the FTC during the Google antitrust investigation, noted upon closing the case:

Undoubtedly, Google took aggressive actions to gain advantage over rival search providers. However, the FTC’s mission is to protect competition, and not individual competitors. The evidence did not demonstrate that Google’s actions in this area stifled competition in violation of U.S. law.

The CCB was similarly unequivocal in its dismissal of the very same antitrust claims Missouri’s AG seems intent on pursuing against Google:

The Bureau sought evidence of the harm allegedly caused to market participants in Canada as a result of any alleged preferential treatment of Google’s services. The Bureau did not find adequate evidence to support the conclusion that this conduct has had an exclusionary effect on rivals, or that it has resulted in a substantial lessening or prevention of competition in a market.

Unfortunately, rather than follow the lead of these agencies, Missouri’s investigation appears to have more in common with Russia’s effort to prop up a favored competitor (Yandex) at the expense of consumer welfare.

The Yelp Claim

Take Mr. Hawley’s focus on “Google’s alleged misappropriation of online content from the websites of its competitors,” for example, which cleaves closely to what should become known henceforth as “The Yelp Claim.”

While the sordid history of Yelp’s regulatory crusade against Google is too long to canvas in its entirety here, the primary elements are these:

Once upon a time (in 2005), Google licensed Yelp’s content for inclusion in its local search results. In 2007 Yelp ended the deal. By 2010, and without a license from Yelp (asserting fair use), Google displayed small snippets of Yelp’s reviews that, if clicked on, led to Yelp’s site. Even though Yelp received more user traffic from those links as a result, Yelp complained, and Google removed Yelp snippets from its local results.

In its 2013 agreement with the FTC, Google guaranteed that Yelp could opt-out of having even snippets displayed in local search results by committing Google to:

make available a web-based notice form that provides website owners with the option to opt out from display on Google’s Covered Webpages of content from their website that has been crawled by Google. When a website owner exercises this option, Google will cease displaying crawled content from the domain name designated by the website owner….

The commitments also ensured that websites (like Yelp) that opt out would nevertheless remain in Google’s general index.

Ironically, Yelp now claims in a recent study that Google should show not only snippets of Yelp reviews, but even more of Yelp’s content. (For those interested, my colleagues and I have a paper explaining why the study’s claims are spurious).

The key bit here, of course, is that Google stopped pulling content from Yelp’s pages to use in its local search results, and that it implemented a simple mechanism for any other site wishing to opt out of the practice to do so.

It’s difficult to imagine why Missouri’s citizens might require more than this to redress alleged anticompetitive harms arising from the practice.

Perhaps AG Hawley thinks consumers would be better served by an opt-in mechanism? Of course, this is absurd, particularly if any of Missouri’s citizens — and their businesses — have websites. Most websites want at least some of their content to appear on Google’s search results pages as prominently as possible — see this and this, for example — and making this information more accessible to users is why Google exists.

To be sure, some websites may take issue with how much of their content Google features and where it places that content. But the easy opt out enables them to prevent Google from showing their content in a manner they disapprove of. Yelp is an outlier in this regard because it views Google as a direct competitor, especially to the extent it enables users to read some of Yelp’s reviews without visiting Yelp’s pages.

For Yelp and a few similarly situated companies the opt out suffices. But for almost everyone else the opt out is presumably rarely exercised, and any more-burdensome requirement would just impose unnecessary costs, harming instead of helping their websites.

The privacy issues

The Missouri investigation also applies to “Google’s collection, use, and disclosure of information about Google users and their online activities.” More pointedly, Hawley claims that “Google may be collecting more information from users than the company was telling consumers….”

Presumably this would come as news to the FTC, which, with a much larger staff and far greater expertise, currently has Google under a 20 year consent order (with some 15 years left to go) governing its privacy disclosures and information-sharing practices, thus ensuring that the agency engages in continual — and well-informed — oversight of precisely these issues.

The FTC’s consent order with Google (the result of an investigation into conduct involving Google’s short-lived Buzz social network, allegedly in violation of Google’s privacy policies), requires the company to:

  • “[N]ot misrepresent in any manner, expressly or by implication… the extent to which respondent maintains and protects the privacy and confidentiality of any [user] information…”;
  • “Obtain express affirmative consent from” users “prior to any new or additional sharing… of the Google user’s identified information with any third party” if doing so would in any way deviate from previously disclosed practices;
  • “[E]stablish and implement, and thereafter maintain, a comprehensive privacy program that is reasonably designed to [] address privacy risks related to the development and management of new and existing products and services for consumers, and (2) protect the privacy and confidentiality of [users’] information”; and
  • Along with a laundry list of other reporting requirements, “[submit] biennial assessments and reports [] from a qualified, objective, independent third-party professional…, approved by the [FTC] Associate Director for Enforcement, Bureau of Consumer Protection… in his or her sole discretion.”

What, beyond the incredibly broad scope of the FTC’s consent order, could the Missouri AG’s office possibly hope to obtain from an investigation?

Google is already expressly required to provide privacy reports to the FTC every two years. It must provide several of the items Hawley demands in his CID to the FTC; others are required to be made available to the FTC upon demand. What materials could the Missouri AG collect beyond those the FTC already receives, or has the authority to demand, under its consent order?

And what manpower and expertise could Hawley apply to those materials that would even begin to equal, let alone exceed, those of the FTC?

Lest anyone think the FTC is falling down on the job, a year after it issued that original consent order the Commission fined Google $22.5 million for violating the order in a questionable decision that was signed on to by all of the FTC’s Commissioners (both Republican and Democrat) — except the one who thought it didn’t go far enough.

That penalty is of undeniable import, not only for its amount (at the time it was the largest in FTC history) and for stemming from alleged problems completely unrelated to the issue underlying the initial action, but also because it was so easy to obtain. Having put Google under a 20-year consent order, the FTC need only prove (or threaten to prove) contempt of the consent order, rather than the specific elements of a new violation of the FTC Act, to bring the company to heel. The former is far easier to prove, and comes with the ability to impose (significant) damages.

So what’s really going on in Jefferson City?

While states are, of course, free to enforce their own consumer protection laws to protect their citizens, there is little to be gained — other than cold hard cash, perhaps — from pursuing cases that, at best, duplicate enforcement efforts already undertaken by the federal government (to say nothing of innumerable other jurisdictions).

To take just one relevant example, in 2013 — almost a year to the day following the court’s approval of the settlement in the FTC’s case alleging Google’s violation of the Buzz consent order — 37 states plus DC (not including Missouri) settled their own, follow-on litigation against Google on the same facts. Significantly, the terms of the settlement did not impose upon Google any obligation not already a part of the Buzz consent order or the subsequent FTC settlement — but it did require Google to fork over an additional $17 million.  

Not only is there little to be gained from yet another ill-conceived antitrust campaign, there is much to be lost. Such massive investigations require substantial resources to conduct, and the opportunity cost of doing so may mean real consumer issues go unaddressed. The Consumer Protection Section of the Missouri AG’s office says it receives some 100,000 consumer complaints a year. How many of those will have to be put on the back burner to accommodate an investigation like this one?

Even when not politically motivated, state enforcement of CPAs is not an unalloyed good. In fact, empirical studies of state consumer protection actions like the one contemplated by Mr. Hawley have shown that such actions tend toward overreach — good for lawyers, perhaps, but expensive for taxpayers and often detrimental to consumers. According to a recent study by economists James Cooper and Joanna Shepherd:

[I]n recent decades, this thoughtful balance [between protecting consumers and preventing the proliferation of lawsuits that harm both consumers and businesses] has yielded to damaging legislative and judicial overcorrections at the state level with a common theoretical mistake: the assumption that more CPA litigation automatically yields more consumer protection…. [C]ourts and legislatures gradually have abolished many of the procedural and remedial protections designed to cabin state CPAs to their original purpose: providing consumers with redress for actual harm in instances where tort and contract law may provide insufficient remedies. The result has been an explosion in consumer protection litigation, which serves no social function and for which consumers pay indirectly through higher prices and reduced innovation.

AG Hawley’s investigation seems almost tailored to duplicate the FTC’s extensive efforts — and to score political points. Or perhaps Mr. Hawley is just perturbed that Missouri missed out its share of the $17 million multistate settlement in 2013.

Which raises the spectre of a further problem with the Missouri case: “rent extraction.”

It’s no coincidence that Mr. Hawley’s investigation follows closely on the heels of Yelp’s recent letter to the FTC and every state AG (as well as four members of Congress and the EU’s chief competition enforcer, for good measure) alleging that Google had re-started scraping Yelp’s content, thus violating the terms of its voluntary commitments to the FTC.

It’s also no coincidence that Yelp “notified” Google of the problem only by lodging a complaint with every regulator who might listen rather than by actually notifying Google. But an action like the one Missouri is undertaking — not resolution of the issue — is almost certainly exactly what Yelp intended, and AG Hawley is playing right into Yelp’s hands.  

Google, for its part, strongly disputes Yelp’s allegation, and, indeed, has — even according to Yelp — complied fully with Yelp’s request to keep its content off Google Local and other “vertical” search pages since 18 months before Google entered into its commitments with the FTC. Google claims that the recent scraping was inadvertent, and that it would happily have rectified the problem if only Yelp had actually bothered to inform Google.

Indeed, Yelp’s allegations don’t really pass the smell test: That Google would suddenly change its practices now, in violation of its commitments to the FTC and at a time of extraordinarily heightened scrutiny by the media, politicians of all stripes, competitors like Yelp, the FTC, the EU, and a host of other antitrust or consumer protection authorities, strains belief.

But, again, identifying and resolving an actual commercial dispute was likely never the goal. As a recent, fawning New York Times article on “Yelp’s Six-Year Grudge Against Google” highlights (focusing in particular on Luther Lowe, now Yelp’s VP of Public Policy and the author of the letter):

Yelp elevated Mr. Lowe to the new position of director of government affairs, a job that more or less entails flying around the world trying to sic antitrust regulators on Google. Over the next few years, Yelp hired its first lobbyist and started a political action committee. Recently, it has started filing complaints in Brazil.

Missouri, in other words, may just be carrying Yelp’s water.

The one clear lesson of the decades-long Microsoft antitrust saga is that companies that struggle to compete in the market can profitably tax their rivals by instigating antitrust actions against them. As Milton Friedman admonished, decrying “the business community’s suicidal impulse” to invite regulation:

As a believer in the pursuit of self-interest in a competitive capitalist system, I can’t blame a businessman who goes to Washington [or is it Jefferson City?] and tries to get special privileges for his company.… Blame the rest of us for being so foolish as to let him get away with it.

Taking a tough line on Silicon Valley firms in the midst of today’s anti-tech-company populist resurgence may help with the electioneering in Mr. Hawley’s upcoming bid for a US Senate seat and serve Yelp, but it doesn’t offer any clear, actual benefits to Missourians. As I’ve wondered before: “Exactly when will regulators be a little more skeptical of competitors trying to game the antitrust laws for their own advantage?”