Tech

Google’s EU antitrust defeat could mean trouble at home

With help from Mark Scott, Julia Arciga and John Hendel

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— Google’s overseas antitrust loss: A top court in Europe shot down Google’s appeal against a €2.4 billion fine for anticompetitive behavior — and the ripple effects in the U.S. could be huge.

— More records requests for TikTok, Snap, YouTube: After last month’s explosive Facebook leaks, lawmakers are pressing other social media companies to turn over internal documents about their platforms’ effects on young users.

— Republicans rail against Biden’s FCC pick: Republicans are ratcheting up complaints about the president’s pick for the open FCC commissioner slot, arguing that nominee Gigi Sohn’s track record may make her inclined to censor right-leaning views — concerns that she has knocked.

IT’S THURSDAY NOV. 11. WELCOME TO MORNING TECH! Alexandra Levine, here, guest-hosting today’s newsletter.

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EUROPEAN ANTITRUST ENFORCERS CORNER GOOGLE — In a ruling on Wednesday, one of the European Union’s highest courts ruled against the search giant’s appeal of a 2017 antitrust decision that found the tech giant favored some of its own search services (related to online shopping) over those of rivals. In their new decision, the judges said Google had abused its dominant position in ways that harmed both consumer choice and smaller rivals, justifying the 2017 decision’s €2.4 billion fine. You can read the full ruling here.

— The winners: Europe’s competition chief, Margrethe Vestager, can breathe a sigh of relief, now that the first of her three rulings against Google has been upheld. (The next court decision, about the company’s Android software, is expected sometime next year.) Smaller shopping search services that have spent years fighting Google also have reason to celebrate.

“While we welcome today’s judgment, it does not undo the considerable consumer and anti-competitive harm caused by more than a decade of Google’s insidious search manipulation practices,” said Shivaun Raff, co-founder of price comparison startup Foundem, which filed the first complaint in this case.

Other winners include companies that offer search services in other markets, like local listings and travel. Many of these firms had filed similar complaints about Google’s practices and had been waiting for a court decision on the appeal, in hopes that it might lead the European Commission to open separate investigations in their sectors, too.

Wednesday’s decision “establishes a framework for the swift assessment of the illegality of this type of conduct in other verticals,” said Luther Lowe, senior vice president of public policy at Yelp, one of the firms eager for its case to be heard in Brussels.

— The losers: Well, Google. The company can appeal Wednesday’s decision to Europe’s highest court, but those judges would rule in its favor only on arcane points of law — and experts say even that is unlikely.

In a statement, Google pointed to a system it implemented earlier to allow its rivals to appear in Google searches whenever someone types in a shopping query. “Our approach has worked successfully for more than three years, generating billions of clicks for more than 700 comparison shopping services,” the company said.

— What does all this mean for the U.S.? The DOJ’s lawsuit against the search giant alleges that Google abused its market dominance by signing lucrative deals that allowed the company’s search engine to be the default on cellphones and computers. That’s a wholly different concept from what just got Google in trouble across the Atlantic, but the fact that one of America’s closest allies just ruled that Google systematically abused its online dominance should not be discounted. It’s precisely what the tech giant’s competitors have been saying for years — and now, there’s legal precedent to substantiate it.

MEANWHILE, IN THE U.S. — A Senate bill that would force Apple and Google to allow developers to use other app stores (rather than the App Store and the Google Play store, respectively) and tell consumers about lower prices online is scooping up new support across the political spectrum.

— Four’s a crowd: Sens. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), Cynthia Lummis (R-Wyo.), Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) and Cory Booker (D-N.J.) signed on to the Open App Markets Act, legislation introduced in August by Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.). The bill would require alternative payment methods and app stores to be made available on smartphones. It would also bar companies from “unreasonably preferencing” their own apps in search rankings.

The bipartisan group of supporters of the bill, who join co-sponsors Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.) and Marsha Blackburn (R-Tenn.), argue that big tech companies have used their “gatekeeper” positions to lock out competitors.

“For too long, Apple and Google have created walled gardens around their app stores,” Lummis said. “This legislation would introduce much-needed competition into these app store ecosystems.”

PRESSURE GROWS ON TIKTOK, SNAP AND YOUTUBE — Lawmakers’ calls for social media platforms — beyond Facebook — to fork over internal records are growing louder.

Rep. Raja Krishnamoorthi (D-Ill.), chair of the House Oversight panel on economic and consumer policy, wrote to TikTok CEO Shou Zi Chew on Wednesday demanding the company turn over “documents and information about TikTok’s troubling practice of showing dangerous content to minors, including sex- and drug-related videos and videos peddling Covid-19 misinformation.”

Scrutiny of platforms popular with children and teens has grown in the wake of recent revelations from Facebook whistleblower Frances Haugen, in the form of the Facebook Papers. A TikTok spokesperson told MT that the company is “continuing our dialogue with committees and responding to requests directly.”

These new House Oversight demands come just weeks after House Energy and Commerce Republicans called on tech companies to provide detailed research on the platforms’ effects on children and teens’ mental health, and after leaders of the Senate Commerce consumer protection panel asked for the same. Representatives of the companies committed at an October hearing to turning over that information to the Senate, which has set Nov. 24 as the deadline. A Snap spokesperson said the company is in touch with both chambers on these requests. YouTube did not respond to a request for comment on the status of the documents and whether they would meet the looming deadline.

GOP ONSLAUGHT ON FCC PICK SOHN CONTINUES — Republicans have fixed their attention on Gigi Sohn, President Joe Biden’s nominee to fill an open FCC seat, and argue that her past scrutiny of right-leaning news networks like Fox News could portend an appetite for censorship. Sohn, whose confirmation is key to Democrats’ hopes of a majority on the commission, is still awaiting Senate consideration and despite initial plans from Senate Commerce leadership, will not appear alongside FCC Chair Jessica Rosenworcel and FTC nominee Alvaro Bedoya in the hearing set for Wednesday (more for Pros here).

— The emerging threat from Sohn, according to the WSJ editorial board, Fox News contributors and conservatives like Grover Norquist: Might she want to reignite some version of the Fairness Doctrine, a long-dead set of FCC policies that required broadcasters to treat opposing views fairly. But Sohn, a former FCC adviser who has spent decades in public interest circles, earlier this year brushed off the prospect of reviving the doctrine.

— Sohn’s own words: “Nobody in the circles I run with talk about it, and those would be the circles who would be discussing it,” she told John, our veteran telecom reporter, back in February. “It’s not clear to me that it needs to be brought back. I’m not going to say I’m against it, but I think the problem is much bigger than the Fairness Doctrine at this point.”

At the time, Republicans were blasting Democrats’ attempts at oversight of misinformation on right-leaning TV news networks — something Sohn saw as “selective outrage,” given GOP silence when former President Donald Trump threatened news outlets over critical coverage. Trump also pressed the FCC to narrow online platforms’ liability protections in the name of combating alleged anti-conservative bias, a push that some Republicans feared would yield a Fairness Doctrine for the internet.

Although Sohn noted that she “was one of the biggest advocates of the Fairness Doctrine 30 years ago,” she told John that the idea of reviving it has no legs in Washington, despite being “the bugaboo of the right.” (Cable networks like Fox, which don’t operate under FCC airwave licenses the way broadcasters do, would have fallen outside the doctrine’s authority anyway, she notes).

“It reminds me of the old ‘Saturday Night Live’ skit with Kristen Wiig where she says, ‘Don’t make me sing,’” Sohn added. “And people are like, ‘Who’s making you sing?’ And she gets up on stage and she’s awful — and like, nobody’s making you sing. Who’s talking about the Fairness Doctrine?”

— In further parsing: Conservatives’ characterizations also paint Sohn as an unrelenting partisan, but she’s broken from party orthodoxy before. (One example was her organization Public Knowledge’s harsh review of a departing Obama-era FCC chair, Julius Genachowski.)

Expect still more scrutiny of Sohn, given her nomination’s accelerated timeline. Some observers told John they see hypocrisy in GOP complaints about that, given that Republicans fast-tracked their own FCC nominee just one year ago (even if the Senate then wasn’t facing the same legislative pile-up that it is now).

Sohn also got one unexpected endorsement from the right: Charles Herring, founder of the Trump-friendly One America News Network, writes that he’s been “in the trenches side-by-side” with her in favor of programming diversity.

FOR YOUR RADAR — The FTC is convening its next open commission meeting a week from today. On the agenda: The agency will vote on whether to order large companies to study how global supply chain issues are affecting competition in retail and consumer goods, including whether the problems are raising prices for customers.

Twitter is launching a crypto team anchored by blockchain guru Tess Rinearson. … Antonio García Martínez, a tech entrepreneur, Substack author on tech and former product manager for targeted advertising at Facebook, joins Lincoln Network as senior fellow on its policy team, focusing on tech, media and digital free expression. … Telecom and entertainment policy veteran Joanna McIntosh is retiring at year’s end as senior vice president and chief of government relations for NCTA – The Internet & Television Association. … Denice Ross, former senior fellow at the National Conference on Citizenship who also served at OMB in the Obama administration, is now U.S. chief data scientist at the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy.

Ian Forbes, a former lead lawyer on the FCC’s Rural Digital Opportunity Fund auction in the agency’s Wireline Competition Bureau, has rejoined the law firm DLA Piper. … FCC announces $709 million authorized as part of its Rural Digital Opportunity Fund auction. … Astropad, Agrin Health and U.K.-based Olio have joined the Coalition for App Fairness as members.

Screens off: Apple CEO Tim Cook speaks with InStyle Magazine about why it’s so important to set boundaries with our devices.

Data brokers’ delight: A look at “how data brokers tried to ‘covid-wash’ their controversial work during the health crisis and forge new relationships with government,” via WaPo.

ICYMI: The Justice Department is suing Uber for charging wait-time fees to passengers with physical disabilities, in alleged violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act, POLITICO reports.

Big Tech’ team-up: Microsoft Teams will be integrated into Facebook’s workplace platform, now known as Workplace by Meta, The Verge reports.

No love for dislikes: YouTube is making dislike counts private to discourage harassment — “but the dislike button will remain,” the company says.

Rebranding is all the rage: First, Facebook became Meta. Now, Amazon is considering renaming IMDb TV to draw more eyeballs, The Information reports.

Speaking of which: Here’s what really goes down when companies change their names, via Protocol.

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