Missouri’s attorney general said Monday that he has launched an investigation into whether Google has mishandled private customer data and manipulated its search results to favor its own products, a further sign that Silicon Valley’s political fortunes may be on the descent.
The probe comes after European antitrust regulators levied a $2.7 billion fine against Google in June and as Washington is taking a harder look into the influence of dominant tech companies in American society.
Attorney General Josh Hawley said that the investigation will focus on three issues: the scope of Google's data collection, whether it has abused its market position as a dominant search engine and whether the company used its competitors content as its own in search results. The state has issued Google a subpoena seeking information about its business practices.
The Kansas City Star first reported on the investigation.
“The bottom line is Missouri is not going to give Google a free pass,” Hawley said. “I will not stand idly by and simply take the word of any corporate giant as to their best interests.”
Hawley, who recently announced his candidacy for the U.S. Senate, said that the investigation was prompted in part by the fine levied against Google by European officials for favoring its own search results, as well as concerns that Google was engaging in similar behavior in the United States. Hawley said that a preliminary investigation suggests that Google may not be accurately disclosing how much data it collects about customers and that people don't have a meaningful choice to opt out of Google's data collection.
In a statement, Google spokesman Patrick Lenihan said, “We have not yet received the subpoena, however, we have strong privacy protections in place for our users and continue to operate in a highly competitive and dynamic environment.”
With heightened concerns on Capitol Hill from both Democrats and Republicans, Silicon Valley is navigating a political reckoning of sorts. In Washington, tech companies face the possibility of new, sweeping regulations that would implicate key areas of their businesses, including requirements to disclose information about online advertising and obligations to better police user-generated content.
Other state and city top law enforcement officers have placed scrutiny on Google. The attorneys general of Utah and the District raised a flag last year, urging the Federal Trade Commission to reopen its investigation into Google's search practices, although the agency has not said it would do so. Mississippi Attorney General Jim Hood sued Google earlier this year over its collection and use of student data and is considering taking further legal action related to other parts of its business, according to the Wall Street Journal
In Congress, the search giant and other dominant tech companies have come under criticism in recent months over a range of issues, from their failure to prevent Russian operatives from manipulating their platforms during the 2016 election to their sprawling size and industry-swallowing operations. The fallout from online election meddling has played a major role in shifting attitudes against Silicon Valley, said Jay Edelson, founder of the law firm Edelson PC, which specializes in litigation involving technology and privacy.
“Five years ago you would not see an attorney general publicly announce that they are really investigating Google in terms of its core business,” he said, adding that more attorneys general will likely be taking a harder look at Google, Facebook and their peers. The tech companies “don't have the same political capital," he said. “And they are going to be seen more as negative forces in the country as opposed to the golden children.”
Hawley noted that the FTC had chosen in 2013 to close its investigation into Google, but he said the agency essentially gave Google a “free pass.”
The FTC declined to comment on Hawley's remarks and referred The Washington Post to prior statements the agency made on the conclusion of its own Google probe.
When asked whether his bid for national office motivated his decision to go after one of the most influential tech companies in the world, Hawley said, “My decision to pursue Google goes back to my oath of office” to protect the people of Missouri.
Hawley, a Republican, is seeking to unseat Democratic incumbent Sen. Claire McCaskill in the 2018 election.