Google has long defended itself against charges of monopoly by stressing that its products are free and that no one has to use them.
And it’s avoided tough government scrutiny for years based in part on the idea that people searching the internet are not Google’s true customers.
We’re its product. Advertisers are its real customers. That complicates the question of who, if anyone, is hurt by Google’s dominance in selling ads off the world’s search queries and through its array of affiliated businesses, from its Android phone software to its YouTube video platform and digital maps.
The U.S. Justice Department’s new antitrust lawsuit against Google argues that both advertisers and regular people are harmed by the tech giant’s position as “the unchallenged gateway to the internet for billions of users worldwide.”
“As a consequence, countless advertisers must pay a toll to Google’s search advertising and general search text advertising monopolies,” the government wrote in Tuesday’s landmark complaint, which asks a federal court to intervene to protect competition. “American consumers are forced to accept Google’s policies, privacy practices, and use of personal data; and new companies with innovative business models cannot emerge from Google’s long shadow.”
The government argues that Google has abused its monopoly power through agreements with other companies that promote Google’s apps and place its “search access points” as a default on browsers, phones and other devices. All of this drives more searches of Google at the expense of its rivals, the complaint alleges.
Google’s critics have been making similar arguments for years in calls to break up the tech giant or curtail its behavior, but U.S. antitrust enforcers have long relied on a traditional standard of judging a monopoly by whether it’s making consumers pay too high a price for its products.
Google controls about 90% of global web searches and dominates search-based advertising, but it holds a smaller share of the overall digital advertising market.
“This is an argument we can expect Google to make a lot and make it loudly, that its customers are the advertisers,” said Rebecca Allensworth, a law professor at Vanderbilt University.
“But there are a lot of antitrust law professors who would say that consumers pay a real price for something like a search engine,” Allensworth said. “There’s a real cost to us, in terms of privacy, attention and data. It may not be dollars and cents. But it’s that price we should be concerned about.”
Google’s business works by scooping up personal data from billions of people who are searching online, watching YouTube videos, following digital map routes, talking to its voice assistant or using its phone software. That data helps feed the advertising machine that has turned Google into a behemoth.
The assistant U.S. attorney general in charge of antitrust enforcement, Makan Delrahim, has repeatedly said that zero-price business models — Google and Facebook are the best-known examples — should not get “a free pass” from antitrust scrutiny because it’s not just about ensuring price competition. It’s about promoting “consumer welfare in all its forms, including consumer choice, quality, and innovation,” he said in a speech at Harvard Law School last November.
Delrahim recused himself from the Google probe because he represented the company as a lobbyist in 2007 when it faced antitrust scrutiny over its acquisition of DoubleClick, then a competitor in digital advertising.
Google has long denied claims of unfair competition and is expected to fiercely oppose any attempt to force it to spin off its services into separate businesses. The company argues that although its businesses are large, they are useful and beneficial to consumers.
“People use Google because they choose to — not because they’re forced to or because they can’t find alternatives,” the company said in a Tuesday tweet that called the lawsuit “deeply flawed.”
But the Justice Department argues that Google “deprives rivals of the quality, reach, and financial position necessary to mount any meaningful competition to Google’s longstanding monopolies,” and that foreclosing competition has reduced the quality of search services.
The complaint mentions loss of privacy and the use of consumers’ data as quality issues, although without elaborating.
While Google dominates search advertising, it’s likely to point to tighter competition in the broader market for online advertising. Google takes in about 29% of all digital ad spending, according to a June report from eMarketer, and faces growing competition from rivals such as Facebook and Amazon — each of which holds about 23% of the digital ad market and is also under antitrust scrutiny.
Rivals that run more specialized search businesses, such as Yelp, Expedia and Tripadvisor, have been among the most vocal in arguing that they’re harmed by Google’s business practices.
Seth Kalvert, Tripadvisor’s senior vice president and general counsel, said that the antitrust charges are good for consumers and could help preserve a vision of the internet as a place of transparency, “the wisdom of crowds” and vibrant competition.
“They provide the framework for meaningful action to stop Google from leveraging its gatekeeper position to benefit its owned services and increase its profits at the expense of competition and consumers,” Kalvert said in a statement.
At the same time, it’s never been certain how much the average American cares about the impacts of Google’s market dominance and the way it uses people’s information. The company has historically ranked high in surveys of user trust, though growing public awareness about the loss of digital privacy and President Donald Trump’s repeated and unfounded claims of tech industry bias have left some dents in its reputation.
The lawsuit is in some ways a repeat of the Justice Department’s last big antitrust case against a tech giant. The government sued Microsoft more than 20 years ago accusing it of leveraging a monopoly position to lock customers into its products so they wouldn’t be tempted by potentially superior options from smaller rivals.
By MATT O’BRIEN AP Technology Writer.
AP technology writers Frank Bajak and Michael Liedtke contributed to this report.
US to seek automated braking requirement for heavy trucks
In a reversal from Trump administration policies, U.S. auto safety regulators say they will move to require or set standards for automatic emergency braking systems on new heavy trucks.
The Department of Transportation, which includes the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, announced the change Friday when it released its spring regulatory agenda.
It also will require what it said are rigorous testing standards for autonomous vehicles, and set up a national database to document automated-vehicle crashes.
The moves by the administration of President Joe Biden run counter to the agency’s stance under President Donald Trump. NHTSA had resisted regulation of automated-vehicle systems, saying it didn’t want to stand in the way of potential life-saving developments. Instead it relied on voluntary safety plans from manufacturers.
NHTSA had proposed a regulation on automatic emergency braking in 2015 before Trump took office, but it languished in the regulatory process. The agency says it has been studying use of the electronic systems, and it plans to publish a proposed rule in the Federal Register in April of next year. When a regulation is published, it opens the door to public comment.
“We are glad to see NHTSA finally take the next step in making large trucks safer by mandating AEB,” said Jason Levine, director of the Center for Auto Safety, which was among the groups that petitioned for the requirement in 2015. “Unfortunately, at this rate, it will still be years until the technology that could help stop the 5,000 truck crash deaths on our roads is required,” he said in an email.
A trade group representing independent big rig drivers says the technology isn’t ready for heavy vehicles and can unexpectedly activate without reason.
“Our members have also reported difficulties operating vehicles in inclement weather when the system is engaged, which has created safety concerns,” the Owner-Operator Independent Drivers Association said in a statement.
The association says that while the technology is still being perfected, legislators and regulators shouldn’t set time frames for requiring it on all trucks.
However, the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, a research group supported by auto insurers, found in a study last year that automatic emergency braking and forward collision warnings could prevent more than 40% of crashes in which semis rear-end other vehicles. A study by the group found that when rear crashes happened, the systems cut speeds by more than half, reducing damage and injuries.
Cathy Chase, president of Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety, another group that sought the regulation from NHTSA in 2015, said the agency is moving too slowly by not publishing the regulation until next year.
“I don’t understand the delay,” she said. “I know that might sound impatient, but when people are dying on the roads, 5,000 people are dying on the roads each year, and we have proven solutions, we would like to see more immediate action,” she said.
In 2016, NHTSA brokered a deal with 20 automakers representing 99% of U.S. new passenger vehicle sales to voluntarily make automatic emergency braking standard on all models by Sept. 1, 2022. But that deal did not apply to big rigs.
The announcement of the requirements comes two days after four people were killed when a milk tanker going too fast collided with seven passenger vehicles on a Phoenix freeway. At least nine people were injured.
The U.S. National Transportation Safety Board, which investigates crashes and makes recommendations to stop them from happening, said Thursday it would send a nine-person team to investigate the Phoenix crash. The agency said it would look at whether automatic emergency braking in the truck would have mitigated or prevented the crash.
Since at least 2015 the NTSB has recommended automatic emergency braking or collision alerts be standard on vehicles.
At present, there are no federal requirements that semis have forward collision warning or automatic emergency braking, even though the systems are becoming common on smaller passenger vehicles.
The systems use cameras and sometimes radar to see objects in front of a vehicle, and they either warn the driver or slow and even stop the vehicle if it’s about to hit something.
DETROIT (AP) — By TOM KRISHER AP Auto Writer
Google pledges to resolve ad privacy probe with UK watchdog
Google has promised to give U.K. regulators a role overseeing its plan to phase out existing ad-tracking technology from its Chrome browser as part of a competition investigation into the tech giant.
The U.K. competition watchdog has been investigating Google’s proposals to remove so-called third-party cookies over concerns they would undermine digital ad competition and entrench the company’s market power.
To address the concerns, Google on Friday offered a set of commitments including giving the Competition and Markets Authority an oversight role as the company designs and develops a replacement technology.
“The emergence of tech giants such as Google has presented competition authorities around the world with new challenges that require a new approach,” Andrea Coscelli, the watchdog’s chief executive, said.
The Competition and Markets Authority will work with tech companies to “shape their behaviour and protect competition to the benefit of consumers,” he said.
The promises also include “substantial limits” on how Google will use and combine individual user data for digital ad purposes and a pledge not to discriminate against rivals in favor of its own ad businesses with the new technology.
If Google’s commitments are accepted, they will be applied globally, the company said in a blog post.
Third-party cookies – snippets of code that log user info – are used to help businesses more effectively target advertising and fund free online content such as newspapers. However, they’ve also been a longstanding source of privacy concerns because they can be used to track users across the internet.
Google shook up the digital ad industry with its plan to do away with third-party cookies, which raised fears newer technology would leave even less room for online ad rivals.
Amazon now says remote work OK 2 days a week
Corporate and tech employees at Amazon won’t have to work in offices full time after coronavirus restrictions are lifted.
The Seattle Times reports the online retail giant said in a company blog post Thursday that those workers can work remotely two days a week. In addition, the employees can work remotely from a domestic location for four full weeks each year.
Amazon’s work policy update follows backlash from some employees to what they interpreted as the expectation they would have to return to the office full time once states reopen.
Some tech companies had launched recruiting campaigns that seemed targeted in part at Amazon workers’ dismay over an end to remote work.
Most Amazon employees will start heading back to offices as soon as local jurisdictions fully reopen — July 1 in Washington state — with the majority of workers in offices by autumn, the company said previously.
Amazon has about 75,000 employees in the greater Seattle area. The company’s new remote-work plan is similar to other large tech companies.
Google said last month that it expected roughly 60% of its workforce to come into the office a few days a week, and for 20% to work from home full time. Google also gave all employees the option to work remotely full time four weeks per year. Facebook and Microsoft have both said most workers can choose to stay remote.
Amazon’s new policy could add to the challenges faced by Seattle’s traditional business core. In pre-pandemic times, tens of thousands of Amazon workers commuted into the South Lake Union neighborhood north of downtown every day. Most haven’t returned.
More than 450 downtown retailers, restaurants and other street-level business locations have closed permanently in the 16 months since the pandemic sent office workers home, according to a Downtown Seattle Association survey.
Of the roughly 175,000 people who worked in downtown offices before the pandemic, 80% continue to work remotely, according to association data.
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