The first eleven months of the year completely shook up the analog world. On the other hand, the corona pandemic has left little traces on the internet. Zoom is the new Skype, and Telegram is now offering a new home to Nazis and racists as well as corona deniers and conspiracy believers. On the whole, however, the platform world works the same way as it did in 2019: People google and send WhatsApp messages, the younger ones stage themselves on Instagram and Tiktok, the older ones network via Facebook.
December could fundamentally redistribute power in the network. Within a few days, a flood of laws and lawsuits were tabled around the world that have the potential to shake large digital corporations. This culminates a development that has been emerging for a long time: Parliaments want to help shape platform capitalism.
This has never been more evident than last week. The US opened the round of regulation with two lawsuits against Facebook. A few hours later, the Federal Cartel Office initiated investigations against Facebook. Then the EU Commission presented a kind of digital constitution before two further antitrust lawsuits were finally filed against Google in the USA.
Google is now threatened with three antitrust lawsuits
In all this confusion, it almost goes under the fact that Australia sued Facebook, Google Down Under is entering the lobbying battle against a planned media law, Great Britain wants to delete content harmful to young people with a drastic law and the media authority Hamburg / Schleswig-Holstein is initiating proceedings against Google .
At the center of the wave of lawsuits are two of the most powerful corporations in the world. If you include the monopoly lawsuit initiated by the US Department of Justice in October, Google now faces three antitrust lawsuits. The original lawsuit accuses Google of having exploited its dominance to anticompetitive hindrance to competitors. This is particularly about tactics that Google is said to have tried to make its search engine the standard on Android and iOS devices.
These allegations can also be found in one of the two new lawsuits. The attorneys general of Colorado and Nebraska, together with 36 other states, accuse Google of preferring their own services in search results and thereby harming rivals such as Yelp and Tripadvisor. The lawsuit could be merged with that of the US Department of Justice. Comparable procedures in the EU cost Google billions, but did not force any fundamental changes to the search engine itself. This is exactly what the US is aiming at: fines are as effective as kicking a gorilla in the shin, says Nebraska’s complainant Doug Peterson.
Ken Paxton, the Texas attorney general, is behind the third lawsuit. Together with nine other Republican-run states, Paxton is primarily concerned with Google’s advertising business. Some of the allegations are just as weird as the wide-legged video, with which Paxton announced the lawsuit on Twitter and seems to be primarily interested in portraying himself as the savior of Texas market freedom.
Among other things, Google is said to have received access to end-to-end encrypted WhatsApp messages from Facebook. Presumably, this means the ability to save your messages in Google Drive, which is useful when you change devices. This backup is voluntary, and Whatsapp even advises that the content is saved unencrypted. It is unclear whether Paxton has further evidence to support his allegations, as large parts of the complaint have been blacked out. At least on this point, the burden of proof seems to be very thin.
Facebook is said to have deliberately hindered competitors
The lawsuits that nearly 50 US states and the US Trade Commission FTC have filed against Facebook are much more sophisticated. In essence, it is about the question of whether the takeovers of Instagram and Whatsapp violate antitrust law. In addition, Facebook is said to have deliberately hindered competitors by turning off data interfaces. Some of the allegations are unlikely to hold up in court, and some of the lawsuits argue contradictingly. Therefore, Facebook is unlikely to be broken up and split into three separate companies as the FTC is calling for.
Nevertheless, Facebook must and will take the legal dispute seriously. After all, for once, Democrats and Republicans want the same thing and join the lobbying war with the tech giants. The new US President Joe Biden is also behind the proceedings. Current incumbent Donald Trump raged against Silicon Valley, but rarely acted. “I’ve never been a big Zuckerberg fan,” Biden said earlier this year. “I think he’s a real problem.” Among other things, he wants to better equip the chronically underfunded FTC. Tech corporations will always have the more expensive lawyers, but if states and FTC bundle their lawsuits as expected, Facebook faces a nasty opponent.
What began in a December week will take years to have an effect. Google and Facebook will fight back in tough lawsuits. The EU Commission’s two digital laws still have a long way to go through the institutions, and lobbyists will try to exert influence.
For years, governments have watched as democratically legitimized institutions lose their influence in Silicon Valley. Politics was simply too slow and cumbersome to keep up with the consequences of digitization. It is unclear whether parliaments and prosecutors can win the battle with the tech companies. But in 2020 at least they entered the arena.