US states launch antitrust probe of big tech; Google ads in focus

Google has faced accusations that its web search service leads consumers to its own products at the cost of competitors. (AFP)
Updated 09 September 2019

US states launch antitrust probe of big tech; Google ads in focus

  • The Big Tech giants have increasingly come under fire for allegedly misusing their clout
  • US President Donald Trump has called for closer scrutiny of social media firms

WASHINGTON: Attorneys general from 48 US states, the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico have opened an antitrust probe into big tech companies that focuses on Alphabet’s Google, Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton formally announced on Monday.
Paxton leads the probe, he said, which will focus on Google’s advertising business.
The Big Tech giants that were once praised as engines of economic growth with massive efficiencies have increasingly come under fire for allegedly misusing their clout in the market and lapses such as privacy breaches.
US President Donald Trump has called for closer scrutiny of social media firms and Google, accusing them of suppressing conservative voices online without presenting any evidence.
Google specifically has faced accusations that its web search service, which has become so dominant that it is now a verb, leads consumers to its own products at the cost of competitors. There have also been complaints of potentially anti-competitive behavior in how it runs the advertising side of its business.
Google said in a statement on Friday that it had not yet been contacted by state antitrust enforcers but would work constructively with them.
Separately, a second group of state attorneys general, led by New York, is focusing on Facebook Inc, it was announced on Friday.
The social media platform, which owns one-time rivals Instagram and WhatsApp and has more than 1.5 billion daily users, has been criticized for allowing misleading posts and so-called “fake news” on its service. Will Castleberry, Facebook’s vice president for state and local policy, said last week that the company would cooperate with state attorneys general.
One criticism of Facebook is that it has been slow to clamp down on hate speech, and it recently paid a $5 billion settlement for sharing 87 million users’ data with the now-defunct British political consulting firm Cambridge Analytica. The consultancy’s clients included Trump’s 2016 election campaign.
On the federal level, the Justice Department and Federal Trade Commission are probing Facebook, Google, Apple and Amazon, also for potential violations of antitrust law.
Google’s parent Alphabet said on Friday the Department of Justice in late August requested information and documents related to prior antitrust probes of the company. The company added in a securities filing that it expects similar investigative demands from state attorneys general, and that it is cooperating with regulators.
Amazon, the world’s biggest online retailer, has been accused of unfair tactics with third-party sellers on its website, who must pay for advertising to compete against first-party and private label sales by Amazon itself.
Apple has come under fire from app developers over practices like making only iPhone apps available through its official App Store. The music-streaming app Spotify has alleged that App Store policies make it difficult to compete against Apple Music for paid subscribers.
State attorneys general have fewer resources than the federal agencies but have been known to team up to take on even giant corporations.
Most recently, 43 states and Puerto Rico sued Teva Pharmaceutical Industries Ltd. and 19 other drugmakers in May, accusing them of scheming to inflate prices and reduce competition for more than 100 generic drugs.


After Facebook staff walkout, Zuckerberg defends no action on Trump posts

Updated 02 June 2020

After Facebook staff walkout, Zuckerberg defends no action on Trump posts

  • A group of Facebook employees complained the company should have acted against Trump’s posts about protests
  • Zuckerberg told employees Facebook had conducted a thorough review and was right to leave the posts unchallenged

SAN FRANCISCO: Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg told employees on Tuesday that he stood by his decision not to challenge inflammatory posts by US President Donald Trump, refusing to give ground a day after staff members staged a rare public protest.
A group of Facebook employees — nearly all of them working at home due to the coronavirus pandemic — walked off the job on Monday. They complained the company should have acted against Trump’s posts about protests containing the phrase “when the looting starts, the shooting starts.”
Zuckerberg told employees Facebook had conducted a thorough review and was right to leave the posts unchallenged, a company spokeswoman said. She said Zuckerberg also acknowledged the decision had upset many people working at the company.
On Friday, Twitter Inc. affixed a warning label to a Trump tweet about widespread protests over the death of a black man in Minnesota that included the phrase “when the looting starts, the shooting starts.”
Twitter said the post violated its rules against glorifying violence but was left up as public interest exception, with reduced options for interactions and distribution.
Facebook declined to act on the same message, and Zuckerberg sought to distance his company from the fight between the president and Twitter. He maintained that while he found Trump’s remarks “deeply offensive,” they did not violate company policy against incitements to violence.
One employee, who had tweeted his dissent on Monday, posted on Twitter his disappointment with Facebook executives.
“It’s crystal clear today that leadership refuses to stand with us,” Brandon Dail wrote on Twitter. Dail’s LinkedIn profile describes him as a user interface engineer at Facebook in Seattle.
Timothy Aveni, a junior software engineer on Facebook’s team dedicated to fighting misinformation, announced on Monday that he was resigning his position.
“Mark always told us that he would draw the line at speech that calls for violence. He showed us on Friday that this was a lie. Facebook will keep moving the goalposts every time Trump escalates, finding excuse after excuse not to act,” he wrote in a Facebook post.
Civil rights leaders who attended an hour-long video call on Monday night with Zuckerberg and top Facebook executives called the CEO’s explanations for allowing Trump’s posts to stay up “incomprehensible.”
“He did not demonstrate understanding of historic or modern-day voter suppression and he refuses to acknowledge how Facebook is facilitating Trump’s call for violence against protesters,” said a joint statement from leaders of The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund and Color of Change.