In late June, Barry Lynn, head of the Open Markets program at the left-leaning think tank New America, released a statement applauding a $2.7 billion penalty against Google for monopoly practices. But, whoops, Google, and its executive chairman Eric Schmidt, give millions of dollars to fund New America. Shortly thereafter, New America’s leader, Anne-Marie Slaughter, decided that it was time to part ways with Open Markets. Emails between Lynn and Slaughter show that Slaughter was, at the very least, aware that Open Markets’ stance on Google could affect the think tank’s ability to solicit funding.
Google denies actively lobbying to get Open Markets shut down (something the original New York Times report never asserted), and there’s no reason not to believe it. When you hold the purse strings, you only need to express displeasure, as Eric Schmidt reportedly did. Just the specter of losing favor with Google was enough to give New America pause.
After the New America story broke, reporter Kashmir Hill shared her own story about Google’s muscle-flexing. In 2011, as Google was pumping resources into its social network, Google+, the company told Hill that pages with a +1 share button would rank higher in search. In other words, Google was using its dominance of the search-engine market to force websites to push its social network, and Hill wrote a — frankly, fairly mild — blog post explaining this dynamic. When the company complained to Forbes, claiming that the information was under NDA (it wasn’t), the site took the article down.
The problem with the technology giants that dominate the internet economy is, they don’t quite fit American understandings of monopoly power. Facebook and Google offer free products. Amazon’s prices are often the lowest. It’s hard to establish that these companies’ practices have ill effects on consumers, which is the classic standard for antitrust in America.
This is why it’s important to hear stories like Lynn’s and Hill’s, which help establish that companies like Google do produce ill effects, even if their products are free and generally well-liked by consumers. They’re morality plays that establish, in clear terms, the corrupting influence of institutions that have become too powerful, which is the central charge that is laid against Google when it’s called a monopoly.
But it’d also be a mistake to imagine that the direct or indirect suppression of arguments that Google has become too powerful is the only, or even the worst, effect of its power. In a long post on Talking Points Memo, Josh Marshall lays out the ways that Google has inserted itself, on multiple levels, into the business and commerce infrastructure that web-based publishers rely on to survive: “1) The system for running ads, 2) the top purchaser of ads, 3) the most pervasive audience data service, 4) all search, 5) our email.” Facebook wields similar power, on both business and personal levels: Priority placement in Facebook’s free News Feed costs advertisers and businesses money, and they can change how effective those ad spends are and how much attention users that don’t pay up receive. Organic referrals (ones that are not paid for) have been falling for years. Facebook also controls what is likely your most fleshed-out “social graph,” a.k.a. your friends list. You can’t port that list over to another service by any method other than manually. You’re captive.
And the cost of this size and ubiquity is less price gouging or aggressive bullying than it is simply finding yourself caught up in a much bigger and more powerful system that’s blind to your existential needs. TPM has received warnings for presenting Google-fostered ads alongside hate speech, though the hate speech was in the context of reporting on Charleston shooter Dylann Roof. Marshall writes, “I’d say our worst experiences with Google — and to be fair, none have been that bad — have been cases like these where Google is so big and its customers and products (people are products) are so distant from its concerns that we’ve gotten caught up in or whiplashed by rules that simply didn’t make any sense.”
There are many concerns about concentrated, centralized power in tech, but that’s the rub. These companies are big enough, and have so many clients and users, that steamrolling an infinitesimal proportion of them in order to retain power is not a concern. (In all likelihood, they won’t even notice.) They have everyone captive and they set the terms, be it for ad sales, hosting, or your social graph. They are so large that they’re not scared of users fleeing or outrage, because those users will keep coming back anyway. To leave these services is a burden only the truly committed are willing to suffer. The only thing tech companies fear is the punishment of government regulation. More and more these days, that seems like an actual possibility.