Google’s bad day in Congress came at the worst possible time

By Russell Brandom

Illustration by Alex Castro / The Verge

Google had a very bad day before Congress yesterday — or rather, the empty chair with a “Google” sign on it did. Because of a personnel standoff, Google wasn’t present at the Senate Intelligence Committee hearing, which left Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey and Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg time to defend their companies’ records and senators free to rain down criticism on Google. Senators hit the company over its decision to tail off US military contracts, its reported censorship-friendly apps for China, and general failure to respond to legitimate concerns. It was a political turning point in the making, a moment former FCC chairman Tom Wheeler is calling “a strategic mistake of virtually incalculable proportions.”

Google has more to worry about than just talk. This Congress has already passed a law expanding platforms’ liability for hosted content, and more significant expansions are already in the works. Just last week, Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-UT) publicly called on the Federal Trade Commission to investigate Google for anticompetitive effects on the marketplace, spinning off a string of bias accusations from Trump. Before the dust had settled on yesterday’s hearings, Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced a meeting with state attorneys general to look at tech companies “stifling the free exchange of ideas on their platforms.” After a string of hearings that seemed like excuses to beat up Mark Zuckerberg, the tech backlash is shifting uncomfortably to Google.

Like any political move, it’s hard to tell where the bluster ends and the threat begins — but it’s not all bluster. Google is in real danger here, whether from antitrust action or new regulatory bills, and the congressional no-show couldn’t have come at a worse time. The tech backlash has been building for years now, and there’s immense political pressure for some kind of measure to rein in tech companies. That could take many forms, including a new 230 carveout, more aggressive antitrust action, or new taxes like the ones proposed by Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT). But the shape of that measure will have immense consequences for the industry at large, and spectacles like yesterday’s hearing make it more likely that Google will catch the worst of it.

Google’s most immediate concern is the FTC. Hatch’s letter was purposefully timed, putting pressure on the commission just as it’s coming face-to-face with the tech industry at large. Next week, the FTC will begin a series of hearings on competition and consumer privacy, which are sure to put tech monopoly concerns front and center. Google’s critics are also facing a more favorable commission than they have in years. For most of Trump’s term, the FTC was understaffed, but a raft of new nominations in January have slowly brought it back to full strength. Maureen Ohlhausen, the most reliably pro-Google commissioner, will step down this month, clearing the way for former Delta executive Christine Wilson.

With the new commissioners in place, multiple complaints against Google are expected to arrive in the coming weeks, making the case that Google’s dominance in search and online advertising have anticompetitive effects. It’s hard to say how receptive the FTC will be to those complaints, and Google could make it through the process unscathed. Even so, Google should be bracing for one of the most serious anti-monopoly challenges in its history — not a great time to be thumbing its nose at regulators.

Beyond the specifics of the FTC fight, Google is vulnerable to many of the same concerns that have dogged Facebook over the past year. Both companies operate massive data collection operations, powering targeted advertising on an inherently invasive scale. Both shape the flow of information in profound ways, subtly remaking the economy and society at large. So far, the Cambridge Analytica scandal has focused most of the attention on Facebook, aided by Facebook’s inherent inscrutability, but there’s no reason that same harsh light couldn’t be turned on Google. With Sandberg and Dorsey getting a relatively favorable response after yesterday’s hearings, that scenario is more likely than ever.

There’s a version of this story where Google plays the good guy, the face to Facebook’s heel. Most of the actual complaints motivating Republicans have more to do with Facebook and Twitter, whether it’s “shadowbans” or de-platforming concerns. YouTube is implicated, but it hasn’t been at the center of those scandals, and its moderation tactics have generally been less arbitrary and more comprehensible than its competitors. As long as the conversation focuses on censorship instead of antitrust, Google just isn’t that involved, and the broader concerns about Dragonfly can be explained away. But all of that starts with showing up for tough questions— and so far, the company is on a decidedly different path.