Blackburn to DOJ: Google Poses a Threat to Free & Fair Press in America

June 22, 2020

Today, Senator Marsha Blackburn urged Attorney General Bill Barr and the Department of Justice to “thoroughly scrutinize how [Google’s] anticompetitive practices could lead to the crippling of journalistic freedom. I also ask that your probe examine abuses in both the online advertising and online search markets, and to take enforcement action swiftly before further economic harm results.”

This morning, Senator Blackburn discussed with Fox News’ Sandra Smith on America’s Newsroom: 

“We are working on reforms to Section 230… These big tech companies are not going to have the safe harbors they have had in Section 230. They are not infant businesses – they are some of the…biggest corporations in this country, and they should not be given protections that other businesses or private citizens are not given.”

To watch the segment, click here. 

The full letter may be found below and here

Dear Attorney General Barr:

I write to you today to draw the Justice Department’s attention to the tremendous threat that Google and its parent company, Alphabet, pose to a free and fair press in America. As your antitrust investigation of Google intensifies, I urge you to thoroughly scrutinize how the company’s anticompetitive practices could lead to the crippling of journalistic freedom. I also ask that your probe examine abuses in both the online advertising and online search markets, and to take enforcement action swiftly before further economic harm results. 

Google leverages the power of its ad platform GoogleAds to harm consumers and competitors alike. Last week, Google took actions towards demonetizing two conservative news media organizations based on the sites’ third-party user comments. A NBC article incorrectly reported that The Federalist and ZeroHedge were being banned from the GoogleAds platform for publishing racist articles, and a Google representative claimed that the punishment was for the publication of “derogatory content that promotes hatred, intolerance, violence or discrimination based on race.” In reality, the takedown pretext was based on user comments and not on news content. While The Federalist was allowed to remain on GoogleAds after suspending the user comment function, ZeroHedge’s entire site was blocked. Google knows it holds clients’ livelihoods in the palm of its hands, as publishers have no meaningful choice to generate ad revenue. Google has no qualms falsely labeling news publishers as racist as a convenient way to turn off their sites and scare writers from debating controversial ideas.

These two illustrations exemplify how Google arbitrarily flexes its control of online advertising to stifle speech that does not align with the company’s social agenda. Ironically, the YouTube platform owned by Google’s parent Alphabet is notorious for inadequately policing its comments section, a veritable Wild West of reprehensible user posts that include links to child sexual exploitation videos and imagery. Behold the hypocrisy. Google fails to hold its own platform to the same standards, and gives preferential treatment to news publishers that more closely align with its own progressive political ideology.

These are not isolated incidents. Using the power of its search algorithm, Google repeatedly suppresses search result rankings for right-leaning media voices such as The Wall Street Journal and Breitbart. But even more pernicious, particularly in an election year, Google is placing its thumb on the scale, harming the ability of news publishers to fairly compete and produce journalistic content to inform Americans’ political opinions. According to the News Media Alliance, Google leverages its search engine dominance to force news publishers to provide content to Google News at discounted, disadvantageous terms—lest they face demotion in Google Search results. To add to the injustice, publishers held hostage to Google Search rankings must also compete with Google News to survive. There is no escaping the Google-run ecosystem.    

I applaud the Department’s initiative in putting forth a proposal to roll back liability shields under Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act. Congress will act soon, and tech giants are on notice that they can no longer hide behind such immunities to silence speech or avoid antitrust enforcement. But Google’s encroachment on competitors and grip on public discourse cannot be stopped by Section 230 reforms alone. The rampant abuse of its dominant position spreads across multiple markets, and the harm is felt acutely across the news industry. In 2019, Google revenue from online search and advertising nearly topped $100 billion. In 2020, thousands of newsroom workers were hit by layoffs, furloughs or pay cuts; McClatchy declared bankruptcy; and online censors unfairly crushed competition from conservative outlets. 

Google must be held accountable for such anticompetitive conduct. Both the American free market and the openness of our democracy are presently at stake. As the Department decides which actions to pursue, I urge mounting a full investigation that examines the company’s control over vast sectors of the Internet economy, from online advertising to online search. Lastly, I encourage you to speak to the representatives of the news publishers mentioned in this letter.