Opinion

The federal government is abusing antitrust law

In Trump's hands, antitrust law is a dangerous weapon

The very best thing about the multi-state antitrust investigation of Google is that the federal government isn't involved at all.

In normal times, you'd expect — even hope for — the feds to lead an inquiry into a company that captures more than 75 percent of all spending on online search ads, and whose influence extends into nearly every aspect of our digital lives. But these aren't normal times. President Trump runs the federal government, and in his hands, antitrust law is a dangerous weapon.

We know this because the investigation into Google is just the second major antitrust investigation announced in the United States during the last week. The other, from the Department of Justice, is an investigation into four car companies — Ford, Honda, Volkswagen, and BMW.

The car companies crossed Trump: They have jointly agreed to meet tough air standards set by California, rather than go along with softer rules announced by the Trump administration. So Trump is plainly using the power of the federal government to intimidate them and other car companies — and to make them pay a price for not getting on board with his agenda. That is the very definition of an abuse of power.

"I think this has now become a personal thing between Trump and California," Andrew Linhardt, deputy director of the Sierra Club's clean transportation campaign, told Politico.

It's possible that dark political impulses lurk behind the Google investigation, as well, but the multi-state nature of that investigation makes that much less likely. Fifty states and U.S. territories have joined the effort — only California and Alabama aren't participating — and the officials involved represent such a cross-section of political interests that it seems nearly impossible they would be colluding together to, say, punish the company for its alleged liberal tendencies.

Indeed, the Department of Justice has launched its own antitrust probe into Google — but that investigation came on the heels of Trump's repeated complaints that the tech industry is trying to silence conservative voices. Again, the federal inquiry appears to serve the president's desires instead of the public's needs.

The state-led inquiry into Google, meanwhile, isn't focused on whether digital media is sufficiently amplifying Trump's voice, but whether its near-monopoly power might be distorting the markets.

"There's definitely concern on the part of the advertisers themselves that Google wields way too much power in setting rates and favoring their own services over others," Jen King, the director of privacy at Stanford's Center for Internet and Society, told CBS News.

That's a legitimate — even classic — area of antitrust inquiry. Which suggests that if Americans and American businesses are to put their trust in government to rein in the power and excesses of Big Business, possibly by breaking Google up into several smaller businesses, they're better off letting the states, rather than the Department of Justice, lead the way. For now, the federal government simply isn't trustworthy.

Complicating these matters is that antitrust law is undergoing a period of evolution. For decades, the federal government has declined to bring antitrust actions if it could be determined that consumers weren't harmed — financially or with a loss of service options — by a company's monopoly power. But some experts increasingly argue for a return to an older standard that focuses more on market dominance and gives trust-busters more power to break up big companies. Google can argue that its broad power benefits consumers, but it will be more difficult for the company to deny its sheer size within the market.

There is now, however, the question of whether the federal government can be trusted with those expanded powers. The funny thing is that conservatives and libertarians have long complained that antitrust law is potentially abused by overreaching government officials. Now it is a Republican president who seems hell-bent on proving them right.

The difference between these two antitrust inquiries, though, is pretty simple. The state-led effort intends to prevent and curb the abuse of corporate power. The federal probes are an abuse of power. Who do you trust? As the the trust-busters like to say: There's no competition.

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