- The Washington Times - Tuesday, September 15, 2020

Senate Republicans on Tuesday grilled Google about its online advertising dominance and whether its threat to demonetize the Federalist commentary website was evidence that the Big Tech company had violated antitrust law.

Google threatened to remove the Federalist from its advertising platform earlier this year but backed down after the conservative website made changes to its comments section.

Sen. Mike Lee, Utah Republican and chair of the antitrust subcommittee, questioned Google’s Don Harrison about whether his company’s willingness to strongarm the Federalist revealed the type of heavy-handed tactics used by a monopolist.

“A private company engaging in censorship on its own platform is not a violation of antitrust laws, nevertheless as I’ve pointed out in my letter to your company on this subject, isn’t this behavior evidence of market power?” Mr. Lee asked. “In other words, why would any company want to treat its customers that way unless it was confident that its customers had no viable alternative?”

Mr. Harrison, Google president of global partnerships and corporate development, responded by saying the Federalist was welcome to take its business elsewhere.

“Publishers like the Federalist have many choices on how they monetize their content, the Federalist actually uses 30 different tools,” Mr. Harrison said. “Publishers buy tools to help it monetize its content, so it has many choices if it’s unhappy with how we’re providing our services.”

Following Mr. Lee, Sen. Josh Hawley, a Missouri Republican, also pressed the Google executive over its policies toward the Federalist. Mr. Lee’s decision to probe Google’s purported anti-conservative bias at the hearing happened in the aftermath of critics aligned with Mr. Hawley alleging that Mr. Lee was refusing to take Big Tech head-on.

In June, Fox News personality Tucker Carlson accused Mr. Lee of ignoring Big Tech companies’ trampling on Americans’ rights and called for the Utah Republican to be primaried and forced from office in his next election. Mr. Lee responded to Mr. Carlson’s on-air criticism with a lengthy statement published on his website that rebuts alleged inaccuracies line-by-line from Mr. Carlson’s broadcast.

On Tuesday, Mr. Lee said he did not want to use the antitrust pulpit to thwack Google over unrelated grievances as he complained House Democrats had done in a previous hearing featuring Google CEO Sundar Pichai.

“Attempts to repurpose antitrust law into a social justice program would have scores of unintended consequences that would cripple our economy for generations,” Mr. Lee said at Tuesday’s hearing. “And of course there is the hypocrisy in believing that ‘big is bad’ applies only to corporations and not to government bureaucracy.”

Mr. Lee previously told The Washington Times that he does not think a “Fairness Doctrine for the Internet” is the correct approach to reining in Big Tech, but a new antitrust regime could be headed in that direction anyway.

The antitrust fervor against Google is not limited to one party. House Democrats are developing proposals to overhaul antitrust law, following an antitrust hearing with leaders from Google, Facebook, Amazon, and Apple. Rep. David Cicilline, Rhode Island Democrat, said earlier this month that the House antitrust subcommittee he chairs will recommend “rehabilitating” antitrust laws in a coming report.

Mr. Cicilline has said forthcoming legislation from House Democrats may seek to view Big Tech companies with large social media platforms in a similar manner to how the Glass-Steagall Act of 1933 viewed banking, which caused the separation of commercial and investment banks.

At Tuesday’s hearing, Mr. Harrison sought to dissuade lawmakers of the notion that there were no competitors in the digital advertising realm for Google.

“The adtech space is crowded and competitive,” Mr. Harrison said at the hearing. “We compete with Adobe, Amazon, AT&T, Comcast, Facebook, News Corporation, Oracle, and Verizon, as well as leaders like Index Exchange, Magnite, MediaMath, OpenX, The Trade Desk, and many more.”

Mr. Harrison’s defense of his company could fall on deaf ears as the clamor for new antitrust action against Google in Washington is growing louder from all corners of government. The Justice Department is working on an antitrust case against Alphabet, Google’s parent company, and plans to file charges as early as this month, according to reports. Individual states have considered taking legal action against Google as well, and Arizona sued Google earlier this year for allegedly deceiving users and using unfair business practices to access users’ location data.

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