At the direction of Attorney General William Barr, the Justice Department is moving inexorably closer to taking on one of America’s technology giants.
A Thursday report in The New York Times indicated that an antitrust lawsuit against Google is emerging as a top priority of Barr, who has previously been mentioned as having tech companies in his sights for potential antitrust violations.
Although the case against Google has been impacted by the lockdowns caused by the current health crisis, it continues to progress because of Barr’s personal attention to the matter, the report said.
A case memo is being developed that would test the Justice Department’s legal argument, should it move forward, The Times reported, citing three unnamed sources “connected to the case.”
The Justice Department has also “assigned a growing number of employees to the inquiry,” according to The Times, which said it interviewed more than 20 people for its article.
The outlet said Barr is expected to decide in the coming months whether to file the suit or not.
“I think the prevailing winds right now are winds that would result in more criticism if they decided not to bring a case than if they brought a weak case and lost,” Charles James, a former head of the Justice Department’s antitrust division, told The Times.
Brianna Herlihy, a Justice Department spokeswoman, would not comment to The Times on the DOJ’s tech investigations.
Julie Tarallo McAlister, a Google spokeswoman, said the company is cooperating with the Justice Department but would not comment further.
Citing three anonymous sources, meanwhile, Reuters reported Friday that the DOJ “is seeking the final documents to complete” its antitrust investigation into Google, and that a lawsuit is likely in the coming months.
There is a “concentration of these very large companies that have that kind of influence on the sharing of information and viewpoints on our society,” he said.
“Our republic was founded on the idea, and the whole rationale was that there’d be a lot of diversity of voices and it would be hard for someone to be able to galvanize, big faction in the United States that could dominate politically and oppress a minority, and yet now we have with the internet and with these big concentrations of power, the ability to do just that, to quickly galvanize people’s views because they’re only presenting one viewpoint and they can push the public in a particular direction very quickly.”
“Our whole Constitution insists the system was based on not having that and having a wide diversity of voices,” Barr said, adding that “one way this can be addressed is through the antitrust laws and challenging companies that engage in monopolistic practices.”
In May, a Wall Street Journal report said a case might be filed in the next few months.
“The evidence of anticompetitive conduct in search technology is striking, and deserves scrutiny,” Republican Sen. Josh Hawley of Missouri has said, according to National Review. “I’m optimistic DOJ will do its due diligence and follow the facts.”
In its reporting on the effort, Politico said state attorneys general as well as the Justice Department could be filing lawsuits as soon as this summer.
It also reported that the Federal Trade Commission is investigating antitrust activity in the tech industry, focusing on mergers impacting Google, Facebook, Amazon, Apple and Microsoft.
In February, Barr noted the vast changes in the tech industry during a discussion of a piece of law known as Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, which prevents tech platforms from being sued over content posted by users.
“No longer are tech companies the underdog upstarts; they have become titans of U.S. industry. Given this changing technological landscape, valid questions have been raised on whether Section 230’s broad immunity is still necessary, at least in its current form,” Barr said, National Review reported. “Technology has changed in ways that no one, including the drafters of Section 230, could have imagined.”
“Over time, however, the avenues for sharing information and engaging in discourse have concentrated in the hands of a few key players,” he added. “The early days of online public bulletin boards, like AOL, have been replaced by platforms with sophisticated content moderation tools, algorithms, recommendation features, and targeting.”