The government vs. Google.

Plus, how can norms be broken so easily?

I’m Isaac Saul, and this is Tangle: an independent, ad-free, subscriber-supported politics newsletter that summarizes the best arguments from across the political spectrum — then “my take.” You can read Tangle for free or subscribe for Friday editions, and you can reach me anytime by replying to this email. If someone sent you this email, they’re asking you to sign up. You can do that by clicking here.


Today’s read: 10 minutes.

The government’s antitrust case against Google. Plus, a unique political ad and a very important story about city budgets.

Reader feedback.

Joshua from Arizona wrote in about the Hunter Biden story. “Your story on the Biden emails today, as well as the media surrounding it, makes me a bit sick,” he said. “The complete lack of class by the Post to release everything, including the drug troubles experienced by Hunter. I’m usually first in line to criticize the left’s identity politics, but I feel this is beyond that. When Snowden leaked real, world-changing information, a sense of class, patriotism, and journalistic integrity kept everything from being leaked. To dump someone’s demons out for public display in a political ploy is disgusting and shows the kind of circles people like Giuliani run in. With the litmus test of ethics and our American soul continually lowered by political attacks, how far do you think these things will go?”

Markian, who is a cyber analyst focused on Eastern Europe, said “I think you largely got it right” about the Hunter Biden emails, but cautioned that “While the Biden campaign may not be claiming the emails are fake, I think there's a good chance you have a mixture of content here — both real and fabricated. Which would make it difficult to refute without making yourself look more guilty, because there's stuff in there that's clearly not fabricated… In any event, all of this pales in comparison to the self-dealing of the Trump administration or the sketchiness of the Trump Organization's overseas projects.”


Quick hits.

  1. Lawyers appointed by a federal judge to identify migrant families separated by the Trump administration say they have not been able to track down the parents of 545 children. The parents were likely deported to Central America without their children. 

  2. White House Chief of Staff Mark Meadows said in court that Trump’s tweets claiming he had authorized the disclosure of documents related to the Russia investigation "were not self-executing declassification orders." Meadows walked the declassification back after BuzzFeed reporter Jason Leopold filed an emergency motion to get access to Robert Mueller's unredacted report as part of a Freedom of Information Act request.

  3. The vote to nominate Amy Coney Barrett to the Supreme Court has been scheduled for Monday, October 26th. Barrett is expected to be confirmed along party lines, and Democrats have conceded there’s nothing left they can do to stop her confirmation. 

  4. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell warned the White House not to make an agreement with Nancy Pelosi on a coronavirus stimulus package before the Nov. 3rd election. McConnell made the remarks in a closed-door Senate GOP lunch, claiming Pelosi isn’t negotiating in good faith and a deal could interrupt the confirmation of Amy Coney Barrett. 

  5. In Utah, the two candidates for governor — Spencer Cox and Chris Peterson — released a very Tangle-esque joint advertisement where they called on Utah to be an example for the rest of the nation. In it, Peterson and Cox jointly plead for civility, a guarantee of a peaceful transfer of power, and say they can disagree without hating each other. You can see the first-of-its-kind ad below:


Burned.

Last night, I got a phone call from a polling firm that was surveying Pennsylvania voters. Imagine my thrill! It was the first time in years a pollster has called me, and I immediately felt rewarded for answering a “000000000” phone number. As the pollster confirmed my name, I was already thinking about the prospect of analyzing the call for a Tangle edition. Ideas were flying through my head. Then, the very first question she asked (after confirming my name) was: “Are you or is anyone in your family a reporter or involved in a political campaign of any kind?” Me, sheepishly: “Yes, I am a politics reporter.” Her: “Okay, have a great day!” Click. 


What D.C. is talking about.

Google. Yesterday, the Department of Justice filed a historic antitrust lawsuit against Google. I know your eyes may have just glazed over, but try to stick with me: of all the government actions in recent weeks that have a chance to impact your life directly, this is probably near the top of the list.

The lawsuit comes after a 14-month investigation where Congress pored over millions of documents related to Google. Its argument is that the search giant uses unfair and illegal practices to preserve its monopoly on internet search and advertising. Google controls an estimated 88% of the search market. The main accusations in the lawsuit are that Google uses its revenue to buy up the competition, block competitors and keep its stranglehold on the industries it has its foot in. The Justice Department says the lawsuit will protect a free market for both consumers and Google’s competitors. 

“If the government does not enforce the antitrust laws to enable competition, we could lose the next wave of innovation,” Justice Department spokesperson Marc Raimondi said. “If that happens, Americans may never get to see the next Google.”

According to the Justice Department, there are three victims of Google’s monopoly: American consumers, who must use its products to access information online and have to submit to its privacy practices; advertisers, who often have to pay Google in order to have any reach on the internet; and other technology companies, who can’t compete financially with the giant.

Today, we’ll explore some arguments around whether Google is a monopoly, and if this lawsuit matters.


Agreed.

Both Republicans and Democrats have been calling for reform in the tech industry. There’s a surprising level of common ground on this issue. Everyone from Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders to the Justice Department, led by Trump appointee William Barr, have said that tech giants like Google need to be broken up. Their reasons, though, can differ widely. There’s also been a partisan break in the state attorneys general signing onto this lawsuit. 11 states with Republican attorneys general have joined the suit, but some Democratic attorneys general have not yet signed on because they think the case was rushed forward so it would happen under a Trump presidency.


What the left is saying.

The left generally views the case positively, and thinks the government can do more to rein in the power that a company like Google has over its market. But there are questions about the timing of it.

In an interactive op-ed in The Washington Post, Geoffrey Fowler asks his readers to open a Google page and search for “t-shirts.” 

“Is the first thing you see a search result?” he asks. “I’m not talking about the stuff labeled Ads or Maps. On my screen, the actual result is not in the first, second, third, fourth, fifth, sixth, seventh or even eighth row of stuff. It’s buried on row nine... Without us even realizing it, the Internet’s most-used website has been getting worse. On too many queries, Google is more interested in making search lucrative than a better product for us. There’s one reason it gets away with this, according to a recent congressional investigation: Google is so darn big.”

In Slate, Aaron Mak wrote about the timing of the case, arguing that it looked like Trump and Barr rushed to get something filed before the election to rile up conservatives who are worried about alleged bias in Big Tech.

“While various politicians, tech activists, and journalists have been long awaiting a major antitrust action against Google—and the particular practices highlighted by the antitrust suit are real concerns—the timing of the Justice Department’s filing is a bit suspect,” Mak said. “Attorney General William Barr reportedly intervened in the investigation in an attempt to bring a case by the end of September, resulting in protests from DOJ lawyers who wanted more time and were concerned about political influence. Multiple aspects of the resulting case filed on Tuesday suggest that Barr was racing to get something in before the election… 

“Both Republicans and Democrats have accused the company of monopolistic practices, and it typically isn’t seen as a partisan issue, but the timing and scope of the suit have divided the country’s attorneys general, many of whom have been conducting parallel investigations.”

Katrina vanden Heuvel argued that we’re witnessing a rare case of “Congress doing its job.” She cheered the House subcommittee report on Google, Facebook, Amazon and Apple, saying “the report tracked how they have gouged suppliers and imitated, acquired or eliminated competitors. It showed how their profits allow them to enter into new lines of business, where they repeat their predatory strategies.” 

“When monopolies have unlimited power to buy up or kill off competitors, they turn perverse,” she added. “History shows how, in a variety of sectors, monopolies led to prices going up, quality and innovation declining, and wages and working conditions worsening… They have grown further during the pandemic, as more economic and social activity has moved online.”


What the right is saying.

The right is pretty split about this. While it’s William Barr bringing this suit, the right generally does not like it when the government sticks its nose into major companies’ business.

The Wall Street Journal’s editorial board summed up this skepticism well, writing that “the search giant makes a ripe political target, but on the evidence in the lawsuit the government’s claims will be hard to prove.” The board argues that consumers can easily download and use other search engines if they don’t like Google’s, and consumers are clearly consenting both to using Google and to allowing it to collect data on them.

“One other weakness in the Justice lawsuit is its narrow definition of the search market, which excludes specialized queries for commercial products that drive Google’s ad revenue,” it argued. “Google doesn't profit from selling ads based on searches like ‘How tall is Donald Trump?’ or ‘temperature in Sacramento.’ Google uses its general search function to hook people, but it makes money from selling ads on specialized queries. This broader advertising market includes Amazon, eBay, as well as websites like Yelp, OpenTable and Expedia. About 60% of Americans start product searches on Amazon.”

“No doubt Google wields enormous digital and political clout, and not always for the public good,” the board added. “We’ve criticized its censorship of conservative videos on YouTube and its profiting off news content produced by others. There’s a case for antitrust scrutiny. But Justice is going to need more evidence than it has released in this lawsuit to prove that it’s the Standard Oil of the internet.”

In The Washington Post, Megan McArdle argued that Google is, in fact, a monopoly power in search. But she asked whether anything the government was going to do would make us better off.

“To actually increase competition meaningfully, we’d probably have to break the company up, rather than fiddling with side deals,” she wrote, referencing the way Google pays its competitors to make them the default search engine on their devices. “But doing so would mean dividing the current number of search results between two or more companies. And as a result, everyone’s searches would probably become less accurate and useful than the ones we’re getting now, because no one company would have enough data to refine those searches as well as Google currently does…

“Moreover, such an intervention might threaten some of the other free goodies such as Gmail and maps that we get from Google — or will get in the future. Money from search ads subsidizes development of those projects, and naturally, they also benefit from being tied into the Google ad-sales juggernaut.”


My take.

To be frank, I’m not really sure what to make of it all. My position keeps wavering. A few months ago, when the likelihood of this lawsuit became apparent, I wrote somewhat skeptically about how meaningful Congressional hearings were and whether Google’s monopoly power was negatively impacting me or other consumers. Then I interviewed Matt Stoller, and read some of his work, and my position moved more toward Google being a monopoly and it being a very bad thing. Now that the details of the lawsuit are out, though, I’m left feeling similarly to McArdle. What is the government going to do to solve this problem in a constructive way for consumers?

As it relates to Google search, the most damning part of Google’s practices, to me, is that it is now giving a leg up to its own products in Google search results. That, without question, is alarming. If I try to look up the best of a certain line of product on Google and I’m fed a Google-owned product instead of what consumers actually think is the best, based on Google’s algorithms, we’ve got a problem. And it’s clear Google has been doing that for years. Given it’s “near-perfect” market intelligence, it can use its data to locate and eliminate any threats to its products, too, either by buying them out or crushing them in search.

This is all very concerning. So, too, is the response to this lawsuit from experts in the space. There seems to be genuine concern that it was either rushed or that it’s not focused enough, despite the work that went into getting the lawsuit out the door. I hope that’s not true, given the fact that it’s clear we need Google to change some of its practices to improve the product for all of us. As more analysis of the suit comes to light, I think we’ll get a better understanding of how this lawsuit could meaningfully change Google or other major tech companies. But it’s years away from being resolved, and for now we can only celebrate the fact that Google isn’t running roughshod over everyone else without getting a serious gut check.


Your blindspot. 

As part of a partnership with Ground News, an app and website that uses data to rate the political lean of stories and news outlets, I’ll be featuring parts of Ground News’s “Blindspot Report” in Tangle. The Blindspot Report tells you what stories folks on the left and right miss each week because of their biased news diets.

The left missed a story about Facebook and Twitter employees sending 90% of their political donations to Democrats, according to a new study. 

The right missed a story about how the Trump administration refused to release federal aid to California to fight its wildfires before reversing its decision after loud public outcry. 

Want to check out Ground News’s bias ratings, blindspot reports or other news sources? Click here.


Your questions, answered.

Q: It really boggles my mind that we've had all these “norms” in place in politics that have generally been accepted, but especially with the current administration has been thrown out the window. Two recent examples are elected presidents releasing their tax returns to the public and the issue of appointing a Supreme Court Justice in the last year of an election. Why is it that these situations get to be utilized as a political football and there are no laws put in place to actually enforce? Isn't that what the government is meant to do? 

— Kenneth, Brooklyn, New York

Tangle: The interesting thing about “norms” in government is that they are usually born out of major political fights or events. Take the tax returns: Before the 1970s, presidents didn’t actually release them. But Richard Nixon refused to turn his over, and after someone at the IRS leaked them, it became clear why he was reluctant. He had paid an unusually low amount in income tax, and ended up owing $400,000 in back taxes as president.

Since then, it’s been pretty standard practice to release returns. The only presidents since Nixon not to were Gerald Ford, his direct successor (he released a 10-year summary), and now Trump (whose returns were leaked to The New York Times and revealed, like Nixon, that he had paid far less in income tax than expected).

The thing with “political norms” is also that they are forged and broken by the public will. In other words, if Trump had refused to release his taxes and then lost the election while that refusal became a major story, he probably would have been the last candidate to avoid doing so. The fact that he got away with it, though, and is still defending it over the absurd claim that it’s because he’s being audited, could very well upend the practice going forward. Unless voters demand it from future candidates, we could start seeing other wealthy presidential contenders refusing to release their taxes and using the same excuses Trump has.

For what it’s worth, a lot of ink has been spilled about the dangers of all this norm-breaking. The Atlantic’s Jane Chong wrote that norms and precedent being shattered by Republicans or Trump right now will damage the country for years. “Crucially, political legitimacy requires bipartisan stewardship of the norms that grow in the spaces between laws and rules, but now precedent is being invoked to justify abandonment of those norms. The very idea of precedent is being politicized in service of the further politicization of the Supreme Court, ‘both in appearance and in fact,’” she wrote.

In The Washington Post, Amy Siskind wrote an entire list of all the extraordinary things that have happened under Trump — one for every day of his presidency. In just the first couple of weeks of his presidency, here are a few from Siskind’s list that have probably been memory-holed:

  • Trump said he has no legal obligation to cut ties with his businesses: “The president can’t have a conflict of interest.”

  • The Republican National Committee will hold its holiday party at a Trump Hotel.

  • Kellyanne Conway said Trump is looking at ways to get around nepotism rules so he can include his daughter Ivanka Trump and son-in-law Jared Kushner in his administration.

  • Mar-a-Lago sold hundreds of tickets at $500+ each for a New Year’s celebration attended by Trump and his family.

  • Breaking decades of precedent, Trump said he would recall all Obama appointed overseas envoys immediately on Jan. 20, before their replacements had even been named.

Another way to look at all this is that Trump’s presidency very well could change the law. In some sense, the things he’s done as president — good or bad — are probably not things anyone would have expected 10 years ago. Nobody thought we’d have a president selling tickets to events at a hotel he owned, or who would try to stay on as an executive producer to a television show, or who could politically survive refusing to release his tax returns. Now that it’s all happened, barriers to other presidents doing these things very well may be codified.

We’ve seen a little of it already: One example is that Congress has reduced the president’s war powers for the first time in decades, for fear of what Trump may do in Iran without their approval. 

Ultimately, it’s important to remember that norms are more defined by us — the voters — than anyone else. The political price we make politicians pay for stepping out of bounds is usually what keeps them in bounds, and for a long time that has been a relatively stable give and take. We’re seeing fractures now, certainly, but I don’t think it’s all bad. A good shock to the system, even a norm-shattering leader like Trump, can also be a good reminder of what is normal, whether it should be normal, where the fault lines are in our laws, and what we as a public want to or are willing to accept before doing something. Finding those boundaries (and redefining them) can be healthy, so long as we don’t simply tune out and accept it when they’re broken, without any thought or consequence.


A story that matters.

The White House is considering slashing millions of dollars from the budget for coronavirus relief, screenings for newborns and HIV treatment in so-called “anarchist jurisdictions” that include New York, Portland (Oregon), Washington D.C. and Seattle. Politico obtained documents that detail the potential plans, noting that those cities could “lose funding for a wide swath of programs that serve their poorest, sickest residents after the president moved last month to restrict funding, escalating his political battle against liberal cities he’s sought to use as a campaign foil.”


Numbers.

  • 39,951,097. The number of people who have now voted in the 2020 election.

  • 4,706,398. The number of people who have already voted in Texas, as of yesterday morning.

  • 4,685,947. The number of people who voted for Donald Trump in Texas in 2016.

  • 1,589,451. The total number of people Barack Obama deported from the United States during his first term as president.

  • 928,144. The total number of people Donald Trump deported from the United States during his first term as president. 

  • $37.2 billion. The amount of money the United States Department of Agriculture estimates it will pay to farmers and ranchers this year to offset the cost of ongoing trade wars. 

  • 74,000. The estimated number of fatal drug overdoses from April of 2019 through March of 2020 in the United States, the most ever for a single year.


Did you know?

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Have a nice day.

Last week, Edmund O’Leary was just a normal guy on Twitter. Now he’s world-famous. The father of twins took to Twitter on Friday with a call for help: “I am not ok,” he tweeted. “Feeling rock bottom. Please take a few seconds to say hello if you see this tweet. Thank you.” The tweet has now been responded to more than 100,000 times, liked over 300,000 times, and has been seen more than 20 million times. "I've gone from feeling like a nobody to feeling like a somebody,” O’Leary told the BBC. Respondents to his tweet who have sent positive messages include everyone from CNN’s Jake Tapper to British Airways, which said they were going to send him something as a gift. He’s been flooded with love, well-wishes, and a flurry of funny or uplifting videos and pictures from across the world.