September 30, 2020

Bill Barr’s ‘Antitrust Crackdown’ Of Google Is Going To Be A Weaponized Farce

By Karl Bode
Back in May we discussed how strange it was that folks would assume that Bill Barr’s “antitrust inquiry” into Google would be in good faith, given Barr’s history of, well, everything. It’s abundantly clear by now that Barr’s DOJ has been eager to weaponize antitrust to go after companies Trumpland is politically opposed to (like the legal cannabis sector), while turning a blind eye to every monopolistic whim of his BFFs in the telecom sector. The DOJ’s petty lawsuit against California automakers also made it clear there’s no real intellectual consistency being applied at the Trump DOJ when it comes to antitrust.

Now reports indicate that Barr has been expediting the DOJ “antitrust inquiry” into Google, in a transparent bid to get his “crackdown of big tech” into the headlines during the election cycle:

“In an unusual move, Mr. Barr placed the investigation under Jeffrey A. Rosen, the deputy attorney general, whose office would not typically oversee an antitrust case. Mr. Barr and Mr. Delrahim also disagreed on how to approach the investigation, and Mr. Barr had told aides that the antitrust division had been asleep at the switch for decades, particularly in scrutinizing the technology industry.”

Context here matters. As the net neutrality fracas made abundantly clear, Google has long been the nemesis of the telecom sector, which has been clamoring for greater scrutiny of “big tech” while successfully convincing the Trump administration to neuter pretty much all oversight of telecom monopolies. Barr, a former Verizon lawyer, has eagerly rubber stamped numerous telecom consolidation efforts with less than zero interest in hard data, most notably the job and competition eroding merger between T-Mobile and Sprint.

Despite an ocean of data showing that deal would reduce competition, harm sector pay, kill overall jobs, and result in higher prices, T-Mobile did everything in its power to kiss the Trump administration’s ass to gain merger approval. As a result, DOJ antitrust boss Makan Delrahim not only approved the deal without listening to experts, but used his personal phone and email accounts to help lobby the deal to approval. That is what “antitrust enforcement” looks like at Donald Trump and Bill Barr’s DOJ. It’s just cronyism dressed up as serious adult policy.

Now, apparently, we’re to believe that Barr genuinely cares about “big tech” monopolies.

The speed at which Barr is moving to shovel the inquiry into the spotlight for election season fodder has apparently upset many staffers at the DOJ, who say the rush has eroded the integrity of the investigation:

“Many career staff members in the antitrust division, including more than a dozen who were hired during the Trump administration, considered the evidence solid that Google’s search and advertising businesses violated antitrust law. But some told associates that Mr. Barr was forcing them to come up with “half-baked” cases so he could unveil a complaint by Sept. 30, according to three people with knowledge of the discussions.

Some lawyers who felt they needed more time laid out their concerns in the memo and left the case; about 20 lawyers remain on the team.”

Confirming what we all knew:

The imminent antitrust case against Google from the Barr DOJ will be a political hit job.

“Some [career staff at DOJ] told associates that Mr. Barr was forcing them to come up with ‘half-baked’ cases so he could unveil a complaint by Sept. 30”

— Alec 🌐 (@AlecStapp) September 3, 2020

There are clearly several goals here for Billy Barr.

The first is to get the false “Conservatives are being unfairly targeted” victimization complex in headlines ahead of the election. The second is to gain leverage over companies like Google as they ponder cracking down on Trump disinformation during an election season. The third is to aid telecom giants and folks like Rupert Murdoch that have long coveted Silicon Valley’s advertising revenue. None of these motivations have anything to do with a genuine “antitrust inquiry,” but we’re going to spend the next month or two watching experts and journalists, who should know better, pretend otherwise.

Some economists have pointed out that Barr’s quest to use antitrust to police viewpoint diversity not only isn’t particularly legally sound, it (like so much in Trumpland) flies in the face of everything Conservatives claimed they believed in over the last thirty years. For example, there was decades of right wing histrionics about the “fairness doctrine” — a concern that’s suddenly and mysteriously absent as Barr attempts to mutilate antitrust to support his quest to police “viewpoint diversity”:

The irony here is that conservatives (under Reagan) revoked the FCC’s fairness doctrine, arguing it wasn’t a legitimate public policy objective, but Barr wants to use the antitrust laws to enforce viewpoint diversity. Is it happy hour yet?

— Hal Singer (@HalSinger) September 3, 2020

Google engages in plenty of dodgy behavior that requires intelligent, adult antitrust and regulatory scrutiny. But Iran Contra cover upper Billy Barr, fresh off endless bouts of sycophancy, obvious falsehoods, and antitrust abuse, is probably the last guy capable of doing so with even a modicum of integrity.