Months before the Justice Department filed a landmark antitrust suit against Google this week, the internet company’s adversaries hustled behind the scenes to lay the groundwork for a case.
Nonprofits critical of corporate power warned lawmakers that Google illegally boxed out rivals. With mounds of documents, economists and antitrust scholars detailed to regulators and state investigators how the company throttled competition. And former Silicon Valley insiders steered congressional investigators with firsthand evidence of industry wrongdoing.
An unlikely collection of lawyers, activists, economists, academics and former corporate insiders are now fueling the backlash against the world’s largest technology companies. Bolstered by millions of dollars from high-profile sponsors like the financier George Soros and the Facebook co-founder Chris Hughes, they have coalesced to become a new class of professional tech skeptic.
To rein in Google, Apple, Facebook and Amazon, the tech opponents have employed a wide set of tactics. They have lobbied regulators and lawmakers about anticompetitive business practices, filed legal complaints about privacy violations, organized boycotts and exposed the risks of disinformation and artificial intelligence.
Their potency was cemented on Tuesday when the Justice Department filed its suit accusing Google of maintaining an illegal monopoly over internet search and search advertising. After years of making the same argument, the opponents claimed the action as a victory.
“It’s a moment of pride,” said Cristina Caffarra, a London-based economist who advised state attorneys general on their Google investigation and worked on an earlier probe of Google in Europe that the Justice Department’s case is similar to. “We did it.”
Their rise underlines the growing sophistication of opponents to the more than $5 trillion technology industry. Even if the Justice Department’s suit against Google becomes mired in legal wrangling, their swelling numbers and activity suggests that the tech behemoths will face years of scrutiny and court battles ahead. That could eventually lead to new regulations and laws that reshape people’s digital experiences.
“There is a counterweight growing in reaction to Big Tech similar to what we’ve seen in relation to Big Oil over these past decades,” said Martin Tisné, managing director of Luminate, a foundation that has provided $78.3 million since 2014 to civil society groups and law firms focused on tech-accountability issues. “I would hope the companies are concerned and watching.”
Google declined to comment beyond its statements on Tuesday that the Justice Department’s lawsuit was flawed and “would do nothing to help consumers.”
Google, Amazon, Facebook and Apple have girded themselves for a long battle. Often outspending their critics, they have hired law firms, funded policy think tanks, built out their lobbying operations and started public relations campaigns. They have also argued that they behave responsibly and that consumers love their products.
Carl Szabo, the vice president of NetChoice, a trade group that represents Google, Facebook and Amazon, dismissed the tech critics as “an industry for activists” and an opportunity for rivals to “put on the moniker of consumer protection.”
The anti-tech professionals agree on many broad points: that the companies have too much power and have transformed commerce and communication. But they have sometimes found themselves at odds with one another and do not agree on the fixes. Some support using antitrust laws to take on the companies, potentially breaking them up. Others said tougher regulations were better to rein in the firms.
Sarah Miller, executive director of American Economic Liberties Project, a group focused on corporate concentration, favors breaking up the companies. She said there was “jockeying” to put forward ideas, but that the movement was a “fairly aligned, functional ecosystem.”
Many of the groups are increasingly well funded. Billionaires including Mr. Soros and Pierre Omidyar, the eBay co-founder who backs Luminate and other groups, have poured tens of millions of dollars into opposing the tech industry. Mr. Hughes, a co-founder of Facebook, is funding think tanks and activists who pressure the companies.
Institutions like the Ford Foundation are also funding civil society groups and research efforts to study tech’s harms. And human rights groups such as Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch and the Anti-Defamation League have devoted more resources to tech-accountability issues.
“If you compare today to five years ago, there is a much different awareness among policymakers and the public,” said Vera Franz, deputy director of the Open Society Foundations, an organization backed by Mr. Soros that has spent $24 million this year on groups focused on privacy, online discrimination and other tech topics. “The key question is how to translate that awareness to real change and real accountability.”
The anti-tech movement’s first signs of success came in the European Union about a decade ago when some of Google’s rivals banded together to persuade regulators to investigate the company for antitrust violations. The resulting cases cost Google more than $9 billion in fines.
In 2016, the opponents scored another victory when the European Union passed a landmark data privacy law, the General Data Protection Regulation, which many lawyers and activists now use against the tech companies.
In the United States, few were alarmed by tech’s power until the 2016 presidential election, when Russia used social media to spread disinformation and sow political discord. In 2018, the Cambridge Analytica scandal exposed Facebook’s weak privacy safeguards and added to the momentum.
Since then, the influence of industry critics has swelled. Antitrust lawyers and economists focused on tech accountability are in demand at law firms and think tanks. Civil society groups eager to investigate the industry are hiring data scientists and researchers. Universities are adding programs looking at tech’s harm.
Bookstores are also stocking titles like “The Age of Surveillance Capitalism,” by the Harvard professor Shoshana Zuboff, about how companies like Facebook and Google try to predict and control human behavior. Netflix films like “The Social Dilemma,” which is critical of social media, have become surprise hits.
Tristan Harris, a former Google design ethicist, said few shared his concerns about tech five years ago. Now he speaks with American and European authorities about regulating the tech giants as public utilities. Mr. Harris, who starred in “The Social Dilemma,” said he wanted to mobilize “a global movement of regulator people and citizens,” akin to what Al Gore did for the environment after releasing “The Inconvenient Truth.”
“It took a long time to get here,” said Mr. Harris, who in 2018 also co-founded the Center for Humane Technology, a nonprofit that raises awareness about tech’s dangers.
One clear impact of the anti-tech community was the 449-page report released on Oct. 6 by the House antitrust subcommittee, in one of Congress’s deepest looks at the industry in years. House lawmakers concluded that Amazon, Apple, Google and Facebook had abused their power to block competitors.
Tech critics played a central role influencing the direction of the report. Lina Khan, an antitrust and competition law scholar, was a counsel for the committee that drafted the report. Fiona Scott Morton, a Yale economist, and Gene Kimmelman, a former Justice Department antitrust official, provided legal and economic background to investigators. Roger McNamee, an early Facebook investor who later turned against the social network, also met so regularly with congressional staff members that he thanked several of them in his 2019 book, “Zucked,” about the damage Facebook was doing to society.
A similar coalition helped build momentum for the Justice Department and state attorneys general investigations of Google. Lawyers at the Justice Department built the case off theories developed by economists including Ms. Caffarra.
There was a “consensus that enforcement has not delivered,” said Ms. Caffarra, who works at Charles River Associates, an economic consulting firm. “I’m in favor of really putting on pressure. Too little has happened.”
But their criticism varies by company. While Ms. Caffarra and Ms. Scott Morton have raised alarms about Google and Facebook, they have also done work on behalf of Amazon.
Gary Reback, an antitrust lawyer who has battled Microsoft and Google, said the political momentum could evaporate. Two decades ago, he said, the government filed a landmark antitrust case against Microsoft — but did not produce the safeguards to prevent misbehavior later.
“We should have had a seminal moment 20 years ago,” he said. “Something happened that caused the momentum to dissipate, and that’s the risk here.”
For now, the mood is largely celebratory. After this month’s House report, Google’s critics in Washington passed around a version of a meme that featured dancing pallbearers holding a coffin, essentially jubilant over the misfortune of the coffin’s occupant.
The pallbearers were Representative David Cicilline, the Rhode Island Democrat who chairs the House antitrust subcommittee, and Representative Ken Buck, a Republican member of the panel who agreed with parts of the report.
And the coffin? It bore Google’s logo.