Google “close to misinformation” in attempt to rally SMEs against antitrust regulation

By Robert Scammell

Tech behemoth Google is sending unsolicited emails to small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) asking for their support against upcoming antitrust regulations. The move, branded “desperate” and “close to misinformation” by analysts, is one which Google tells Verdict is ultimately in SMEs’ best interests.

Google My Business Profile users have reported receiving emails from the company warning about the threat bills in US Congress could pose to their business by disrupting the Google services they rely on.

The near $2tn company has set up a landing page where it asks business owners to provide their email address to “stay up-to-date on proposed legislation that could impact your business”.

The landing page says that “some” businesses have “expressed concerns about proposed regulations in Congress” and goes on to list three ways in which unspecified bills will “cost your business time and money” if passed.

They include “making it harder for customers to find you”, “making your digital marketing less effective” and “hurting your productivity”.

The three outcomes refer to bills that seek to stop Google favouring its Maps product on search results, splitting up Google Ads and Google Analytics and breaking up Gmail, Docs and Calendar.

The email and landing page do not mention any specific bills. But one bill that has Google in its sights – along with Amazon, Facebook and Apple – is the “Ending Platform Monopolies Act”. If passed, it could see those firms broken up and forced to spin out divisions into separate companies.

Another bill, the American Innovation and Choice Online Act, seeks to prevent platforms from unfairly favouring their own services.

“This bill doesn’t address the real issues – rather, it would break a wide range of helpful services from leading American companies, while making those services less safe, less private and less secure,” said Mark Isakowitz, VP of government affairs and public policy at Google.

Both these bills have strong bipartisan support, which might explain why Google has taken the unusual approach of directly courting small businesses to join its regulatory fight.

“Together, we can be an important voice in the policy conversation about regulations that affect you – and your business,” Google’s landing page adds.

Google goes grassroots in antitrust fight

Google declined to tell Axios, which first reported the news, how many businesses it contacted. But according to Laura Petrone, principal analyst in the thematic research team at GlobalData, the “grassroots” lobbying approach indicates Google is “desperate”.

“It shows that Big Tech companies are seriously worried about the regulatory backlash that is being and will be unleashed against them – especially in the antitrust area,” she explained. “We already knew that Google is taking lobbying spending to new highs – for example in Brussels – and now it is engaging in indirect and more subtle grassroots forms of lobbying.”

A Google spokesperson told Verdict: “As we’ve said, we’re concerned that Congress’s controversial package of bills could have unintended consequences, especially for small businesses who have relied on digital tools to adapt, recover and reach new customers throughout the pandemic.

 

“We know our customers have questions, so we’re working to keep them informed about how these bills could impact the tools they rely on everyday to run their businesses.”

Petrone added that the language used to describe the proposed legislation in its blog posts is “deliberately vague, misleading and very close to misinformation. That’s quite desperate from its part”.

For Google, garnering support from all corners could prove to be a shrewd move. As shown by its lost appeal over a $2.8bn EU antitrust fine and victory in a UK data collection case, the company faces constant regulatory and legal challenges to its business model.

While grassroots lobbying that seeks to mobilise a customer base via email or an online platform is a rare phenomenon, it is not without precedent.

In 2020, ride-hailing giant Uber used its mobile app to send push notifications to garner support for Proposition 22 – a ballot measure that exempts ride-hailing firms from classifying their drivers as employees. The ballot ultimately passed in Uber and Lyft’s favour, although it has since hit a roadblock with a California judge describing it as “unconstitutional”.

More recently, Amazon has argued that small businesses would suffer if proposed antitrust regulation was passed – although it did not contact small businesses directly as Google did.

“As far as I’m aware there are no rules preventing this type of lobbying – also because this is something new,” added Petrone.