If US trustbusters ever get around to taking on Google, it may have as much to do with the mood in Jefferson City, Missouri, and Jackson, Mississippi, as the recent shift in the political winds in Washington.
Since 2013, when the Federal Trade Commission abandoned a case it had been building against the search company, Americans concerned about Google’s growing power have had to look to Europe for hope.
They include people like Jim Hood, the attorney-general of Mississippi, who has already fought the company on a number of fronts. “I was impressed by the determination of the European Union to protect its citizens,” he says of Europe’s recent €2.4bn fine. And Mr Hood predicts that, once he resolves an existing privacy battle with the company, a competition inquiry will be next: “That will probably lead us right into antitrust issues.”
Josh Hawley, his counterpart in Missouri and a Republican candidate for the US Senate next year, has already ploughed ahead, issuing a subpoena this week as part of an investigation into privacy and antitrust. It may seem a long shot to take on a company with such a strong reputation among consumers over privacy issues, which have always resonated less in the US than Europe.
But Mr Hood says that circumstances have changed, and that the Equifax breach, along with the sheer scale of Google’s data holdings, have finally awoken people to what is at stake.
Sabre-rattling from a politician running for office and a long-time adversary looking for a new line of attack does not sound like the basis for a sustained regulatory attack. But the political mood in the US has shifted under Google in the last few months, as for other big tech companies. The question now is whether the spark in state capitals will be enough to touch off a wider conflagration.
There are precedents. Google’s adversaries take heart from the fact that Microsoft’s antitrust problems began with a state investigation in Texas before being taken up by other states and federal regulators. Texas was also straining at the leash to take a deeper look, along with Ohio, when the FTC took a run at the company.
Some also claim to see signs of simmering discontent among state attorneys-general more broadly. Some 40 AGs took Mr Hood’s side in court when Google sued to block an investigation he wanted to conduct into the sale of illegal and counterfeit drugs, a case he had taken on behalf of the states at large. Google won that round, but potentially at the cost of making enemies among a group of lawyers it can ill-afford to antagonise.
It is too early to tell if the regulatory sallies in the US, which mainly revolve around privacy issues, will rise to the level of a full-on antitrust investigation. One potential risk for Google comes from an agreement reached with federal regulators five years ago, when it promised not to “scrape” information from other websites and show it in its own search results. Yelp, the local search company at the centre of that case, now claims that Google has breached that undertaking. Regulators tend to come down hard on such failures: Google was fined a record $22.5m in 2012 for failing to stick to the terms of an FTC privacy order.
But a deeper look into alleged search bias — the issue raised in Europe — looks further off. Missouri’s subpoena this week merely seeks documentation from the company’s past cases, rather than asking more detailed questions. That suggests that any investigation is at a very preliminary stage.
It is equally difficult to see immediate signs of the issue catching light in Washington. Mr Hood, a Democrat, notes the mood in his party has swung heavily against big tech companies. After eight years of battling, though, he does not hold out much hope for federal activism.
Google has built a strong lobbying operation and political connections in Washington. And one adversary notes that, by burying the hatchet with former arch-enemy Microsoft, it has greatly reduced the risk. “Without deep pockets on the good guys’ side, it’s difficult to take this anywhere,” this person says — adding that it would probably take a personal intervention from President Trump to stir federal regulators into action.
Mr Hood says he sees another hope: that the change of heart in the US media, where the power of “big tech” is now a clear concern, will continue to fan the political flames and keep the issue front and centre. But with no obvious sign yet of the Trump administration paying any attention, few are holding their breath.
Get alerts on Companies when a new story is published