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Congress takes aim at Google search in antitrust hearing

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Are tech monopolies unfairly privileging their products?

Presidential Candidate Amy Klobuchar Campaigns In Virginia Ahead Of Super Tuesday Photo by Zach Gibson/Getty Images

Congress is maintaining a push for more antitrust enforcement — including new legislation and a hearing where members excoriated Google and Amazon. Today, the Senate Judiciary Committee met to discuss tech companies unfairly favoring their own products. And Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-MN) announced a bill to limit “exclusionary conduct” where a big company locks out smaller competitors, among other changes to antitrust law.

Klobuchar described her bill, known as the “Anticompetitive Exclusionary Conduct Prevention Act,” as an across-the-board reform. It increases the burden of proof on monopolists to prove they’re not suppressing competition, and it discourages courts from granting immunity from antitrust enforcement. “We have a major monopoly problem in this country, which harms consumers and threatens free and fair competition across our economy,” she said in a statement. “Companies need to be put on notice.”

But she promoted it during a Senate hearing on digital platforms, one of several events sparked by the backlash against large tech companies. The hearing covered the tactic of self-preferencing — where a company uses dominance in one area to privilege its other services, whether or not they’re the best option for consumers. “Depending on the circumstances, these types of practices can have a devastating effect of competition,” said Klobuchar.

Much of the hearing focused on Google search — a particular sore spot for antitrust proponents. For years, Google has used special boxes and other layouts to promote results from its own shopping, mapping, and local review services, drawing fire from rivals like Yelp. “Google was the original gateway to the web. I’m here today to speak about how Google betrayed the web,” said Yelp policy head Luther Lowe, one of the hearing’s witnesses. “Google physically demoted non-Google results even if they contained information with higher quality scores.”

Lowe and others acknowledged the difficulty of separating reasonable business tactics from antitrust violations, however. Grocery stores, for example, sell store-brand products that compete with other items on the shelves. Amazon does this too, but Open Markets Institute expert Sally Hubbard argued that its size and ubiquity make the situation different. Likewise, under a completely “neutral” ecosystem, Apple and Google wouldn’t preinstall any apps on your phone — but antitrust enforcers don’t want to go that far.

Earlier this year, Sonos, PopSockets, and other startups pleaded with Congress to take action against big companies. Today’s hearing was more theoretical and reserved — and some participants, like App Association president Morgan Reed, argued against heavy antitrust enforcement.

Even so, the event tied into an urgent and politically charged debate over tech regulation. This morning, Sens. Josh Hawley (R-MO) and Richard Blumenthal (D-CT) urged Attorney General William Barr to include search in a Google antitrust investigation, saying a narrow investigation would do a “grave disservice” to users. And Hawley spent several minutes of today’s hearing ripping into the service. “It gives consumers lower-quality results. It actively misleads consumers who are told by Google itself that it returns always the most relevant results,” he said. The Federal Trade Commission once notably investigated Google for anti-competitive practices, but it made a controversial decision to end the case in 2013.

Congress is sitting on several tech and antitrust bills, and hearing participants thought cases could proceed even without Klobuchar’s bill. “Enforcers need to be more willing to take a risk,” said Hubbard, in bringing cases against potentially unfair monopolies. But there’s still value in reform, she said. “I think Congress should aim to remove the complexity and make antitrust cases easier, faster, and cheaper.”