With the U.S. Congress set to debate new legislation that could rein in the power of Big Tech, Google says it has some concerns.
“Every day, millions of Americans use online services like Google Search, Maps, and Gmail to find new information and get things done,” Google and Alphabet president and chief legal officer Kent Walker writes in a new post to the firm’s The Keyword blog. “Research shows these free services provide thousands of dollars a year in value to the average American, and polls show that 90 percent of Americans like our products and services.”
Antitrust isn’t a popularity contest, of course, and consumers’ inability to understand what is good for them doesn’t really factor in either. Instead, antitrust law is at least partially “about ensuring that companies are competing hard to build their best products for consumers,” as Walker notes. Google’s complaint is that the bills before Congress are “vague and sweeping provisions” that could break up popular services, benefiting a handful of companies while disadvantaging consumers.
Fair enough: anyone schooled in, say, Microsoft’s U.S. antitrust troubles from two decades ago will recall similar arguments, that bundling products and services has both positive and negative outcomes. The trick with antitrust is to prevent dominant corporations from unfairly stifling competition and innovation, which, in the long run, will in fact help consumers. That’s the part of antitrust law Google does not address here.
On that note, here are some specific Google complaints (in his words, not mine).
- Americans might get worse, less relevant, and less helpful versions of products like Google Search and Maps … If you search for a place or an address, we may not be able to show you directions from Google Maps in your results … When you have an urgent question — like “stroke symptoms” — Google Search could be barred from giving you immediate and clear information, and instead be required to direct you to a mix of low-quality results … [and] when you search for local businesses, Google Search and Maps may be prohibited from highlighting information we gather about hours of operation, contact information, and reviews. That could hurt small businesses and local retailers, as well as their customers.
- An “innovation by permission” requirement could force American technology companies to get approval from government bureaucrats before launching new features or even fixing problems, while foreign companies would be free to innovate. He adds that “foreign companies could also routinely access American technology as well as Americans’ data.”
- Handicapping America’s technology leaders would threaten our leading sources of research and development spending — just as bipartisan voices in Congress are recognizing the need to increase American research and development investment to stay competitive in the global race for AI, quantum, and other advanced technologies.
- National security experts from both parties have aligned in warning that current anti-tech bills could threaten America’s national security … These bills could prevent us from securing our products by default, and would introduce new privacy risks for [consumers].
Overall, Walker argues that the proposed laws would boost competitors—i.e. “competition”—and not consumers, which is a smart tact to take: U.S. antitrust law is typically more focused on consumers than competition, as compared to EU antitrust law, which is more focused on fair competition, generally speaking.
“We believe that updating technology regulations in areas like privacy, AI, and protections for kids and families could provide real benefits,” he concludes. “But breaking our products wouldn’t address any of these issues. Instead, it would eliminate helpful features, expose people to new privacy and security risks, and weaken America’s technological leadership. There’s a better way. Congress shouldn’t rush to judgment, and should instead take more time to consider the unintended consequences of these bills.”