"We used to be so dismissed," said Jeremy Stoppelman, the boss of Yelp, an online-review site which has waged a six-year-long battle against Google over how the online giant ranks its search results. Now U.S. regulators are taking concerns about Google more seriously.
On Nov. 13, Missouri Attorney General Josh Hawley launched an investigation into the search giant to determine whether it had violated the state's antitrust and consumer-protection laws. Until then it had been chiefly in Europe where Google had trouble. In June the European Commission announced a record-breaking $2.7 billion fine against it for anticompetitive behavior, concluding it had suppressed online-shopping results from rivals in its search results.
Other European investigations into Google's behavior are ongoing. The United States has taken a more benign view of its homegrown giant. One of its competition watchdogs, the Federal Trade Commission (FTC), spent a few years investigating Google for anticompetitive behavior, but its five commissioners voted in early 2013 to close the inquiry after Google agreed to tweak some of its practices.
Will the U.S. go the way of Europe and abandon its Googlephilia?
There are reasons to think that attitudes have already changed. One is that more states are starting to scrutinize Google over its policies about collecting consumer data and its allegedly anticompetitive behavior toward smaller firms such as Yelp. Google has 60 days to respond to Hawley or go to court.
As a Republican candidate for the Senate in 2018, Hawley is probably motivated in part by a quest for national attention — lashing out at big business can play well in campaigns. Politicians are also gearing up for midterm elections next November. Many believe that Google and Facebook, a social-media giant, failed Americans by doing too little to screen out Russian ads and content during the 2016 presidential election campaign.
Hawley is not alone in feeling that Google needs closer attention. Last year, Karl Racine, Washington's attorney general, and Sean Reyes, Utah's attorney general, asked the FTC to reopen its Google investigation. Some other state attorneys general are also believed to be considering inquiries.
States' investigations could eventually put pressure on the federal government to take action of its own. There is precedent: state attorneys general hastened the federal government's decision to pursue strong antitrust action against Microsoft in the late 1990s, noted Gary Reback, a lawyer who worked with some of them in his work opposing Microsoft.
In Washington, D.C., there is a new pack of watchdogs selected by President Donald Trump, who received little support from the tech industry during his presidential campaign.
In contrast, former President Barack Obama had strong ties to tech and to Google in particular. Some think this helped Google get off too easily in the past. "I worry that the FTC under the Obama administration, which had many close ties to Google, meant that the investigation was not as independent as it might have been," Hawley said.
Trump's nominee to run the FTC, Joe Simons, is a lawyer who used to run the FTC's antitrust division. "If the standard narrative is that because the Republicans are in town, Simons is not going to do anything, he will really surprise people," said William Kovacic, a professor at George Washington University Law School who used to work with Simons at the FTC.
Two other sources of uncertainty for Google and for other tech firms are a newly activist Department of Justice, which is tasked with competition issues, and the Federal Communications Commission (FCC). On Nov. 20, the Justice Department sued against a merger between AT&T and Time Warner, on antitrust grounds. A day later, the FCC said it would gut Obama-era rules on "network neutrality" that ensure broadband providers treat all internet traffic equally.
The big question is whether a full overhaul of antitrust law is coming. Google has around 42 percent of all U.S. digital advertising and 80 percent of online search advertising, according to eMarketer, a research firm. In the past watchdogs have based their actions on consumer harm, which is hard to prove in the case of the digital giants as their services are free of charge. The European Commission has taken a view that the suppression of competition is damaging to consumers. Googlers who relied on their popularity with U.S. consumers and politicians to protect them at home can no longer feel so secure.