Coalitions of state attorneys general are launching antitrust investigations into dominant tech platforms.
A group of eight, including New York, announced its investigation of Facebook on Friday. On Monday a larger coalition is expected to announce a separate investigation, reportedly of Google, and perhaps other companies.
Washington Attorney General Bob Ferguson should join this effort. He would bring the perspective of a state with extensive experience balancing the need to protect consumers and market competition with the importance of sustaining innovation and economic growth.
Ferguson would join a growing chorus of regulators and elected officials confronting the excessive power a few giant platforms, including Google and Facebook, have over consumers, media and civic knowledge. The U.S. is belatedly catching up to regulators in Europe that have penalized Google in particular for unfairly using its dominant search, advertising and phone software to impede rivals.
This dovetails with the critical need to prevent foreign meddling in elections. In 2016, Russia used these largely unregulated platforms to spread disinformation, misleading and dividing American voters.
After regulators’ light touch during the Obama era, they are stepping up. The Federal Trade Commission recently fined Facebook $5 billion for violating pledges to protect privacy. The Department of Justice in July announced it was reviewing whether major online platforms are “engaging in practices that have reduced competition, stifled innovation, or otherwise harmed consumers.”
Simultaneously, the House Judiciary Committee, led by New York Democrat Jerrold Nadler and including U.S. Rep. Pramila Jayapal, D-Seattle, is holding hearings and investigating how these platforms are shaping the economy and democracy, and what policy changes are needed.
Regulators should address not only economic and privacy issues, but civic harm resulting from a few opaque gatekeepers controlling the delivery of news and information, while simultaneously bleeding to death the free press that’s essential to self governance.
A new study by Duke University researchers affirms that newspapers still generate most news stories that are original, local and provide information critically important in their communities. Analyzing news produced by newspapers, radio, TV and online-only outlets in 100 randomly chosen markets, they found newspapers generated more local news stories than all other outlet types combined.
“These findings support the continued importance of public policy and philanthropic efforts to support the viability of local newspapers. These findings also suggest that commercial and philanthropic efforts to establish online-only outlets as comparable alternatives to local newspapers remain far from this goal,” the study said.
The big online platforms profit from newspapers’ content, siphon advertising revenue that used to sustain journalism and fail to invest it back into news gathering. As the newspaper industry shrinks, Google and Facebook now receive two thirds of digital ad revenue in the U.S., with Google taking 75 percent of search ad revenue and Facebook 83 percent of social ad revenue, according to eMarketer.
While these tech platforms are valued employers and provide useful services, they can continue thriving without taking unfair advantage of their strong market positions. As they become quasi utilities, regulatory oversight is justified to ensure they abide by rules that apply to competitors and provide fair access to their platforms.
Ferguson’s office declined to say whether he’ll be part of Monday’s announcement or to provide an interview. But a spokesperson noted he’s shown willingness to prosecute these companies.
Last year, he recovered $455,000 from Google and Facebook for violating political-advertising disclosure laws that apply to all media. He also participated in a multistate action against Google in 2013, after the company circumvented consumers’ browser privacy settings to benefit its ad business, leading to a $17 million settlement.
State and federal officials are right to scrutinize the behavior of these companies and the extraordinary power they have over Americans and civic life. Washington state should join the fight.