Given their outsize influence in Floridians’ daily lives, it’s hard to believe Facebook has been available to the general public for only 13 years, and that Google became a public company a mere 15 years ago. But are they too big and powerful? And have they used their clout improperly? It’s good to see Florida Attorney General Ashley Moody joining her peers from other states to probe those questions. It’s time for answers.
Forty-eight attorneys general jointly announced an investigation into Google and its business practices on Monday. Moody was among those who joined Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton, a fellow Republican whose state is leading this effort, on the steps of the U.S. Supreme Court, where he said Google “dominates all aspects of advertising on the Internet and searching on the Internet." For now, this is an investigation, not a lawsuit. That’s the right course, but it’s also proper to let the facts lead where they may. This follows Friday’s news that Facebook is facing similar scrutiny by eight states, led by New York Attorney General Letitia James, a Democrat, in an antitrust investigation. Moody, again, has correctly brought Florida into that action.
The probes of the two tech giants likely will be somewhat different. Potential rivals accuse Facebook of smothering competition by paying a premium to buy start-ups that could pose a threat, effectively cornering the market. They point to Facebook’s acquisitions of Instagram, the photo-sharing app, and WhatsApp, the global messaging app, as examples. Facebook has done itself no favors by failing to properly acknowledge its responsibilities during the Russian misinformation campaigns of the 2016 presidential election and other episodes. Similarly, it has created distrust by its failure to safeguard user data. Users should know if their data is private or not. A vigorous investigation will shed more light on these issues.
Google is likely going to have to explain to regulators how its search function -- which, after all, is now a verb -- doesn’t give it monopoly powers. Google.com is the most-visited website in the world, and a recent on-line search analysis shows that more than half of Google searches never leave Google at all, a threshold that was crossed just this summer. They don’t result in a click to another site. Such a walled-in garden, competitors say, deprives them of clicks that lead to cash. Google makes most of its money from digital ads, a market that it dominates. Google’s Android operating system for smart phones is free, but the company requires phone manufacturers to give its search engine priority of place. Google claims that it favors competition. A full investigation would make clear if that’s true.
Big Tech has wrought massive changes in all of our lives, and not all of it is positive. It’s hard to imagine a world without smart phones and computers that can answer queries with a few keystrokes or social networks that connect us with friends and family. Yet those changes have come at a cost, even if users haven’t paid the price in cash. Those corporations have made massive amounts of money profiting from our personal information, and it’s time to investigate how those high-tech companies conduct business, whether they treat private data with due care and whether they exert monopoly powers over competitors and users. It’s smart that Moody has gotten Florida a seat at the table in both of these cases.
Editorials are the institutional voice of the Tampa Bay Times. The members of the Editorial Board are Times Chairman and CEO Paul Tash, Editor of Editorials Tim Nickens, and editorial writers Elizabeth Djinis, John Hill and Jim Verhulst. Follow @TBTimes_Opinion on Twitter for more opinion news.