Sen. Mike Lee (R-Utah), the subcommittee’s chairman, opened the hearing Tuesday by saying he would continue to pursue issues of perceived conservative bias, but that this hearing was not fundamentally about those concerns. But he directed his first question to Google, asking about its alleged censorship of a conservative news outlet.
The Senate panel’s line of questioning may shed light on Republicans’ antitrust priorities at a critical juncture for Google. The Justice Department is expected to file its lawsuit as early as this month. A group of state attorneys general, led by Republican Ken Paxton of Texas, is also conducting a parallel investigation.
Google is the first target in what could be a watershed moment for antitrust regulation in the country. Critics have charged for years that U.S. laws have failed to rein in Big Tech, allowing companies to amass ever more power.
Three more Big Tech companies were questioned at the congressional hearing in July: Facebook for its acquisition of smaller companies including Instagram, Apple for its hold on the App Store, and Amazon for the way it collects data from third-party sellers on its site. (Amazon chief executive Jeff Bezos owns The Washington Post.)
But Google received a significant amount of attention during the hearing as CEO Sundar Pichai defended the company against concerns about the dominance of its search and ad technologies. Competitors have accused Google for years of unfairly controlling too much of the market by prioritizing its own services over others on search results pages and by managing many aspects of the digital ad buying and displaying process.
Lee has repeatedly criticized the tech industry for being biased against conservatives, a charge that has little evidence and that the tech giants have repeatedly denied. He has suggested that this perceived bias is grounds for greater antitrust scrutiny.
“I view your heavy-handed censorship as a sign of exactly the sort of degraded quality one expects from a monopolist,” he wrote in a letter to tech companies, including Google’s parent company, Alphabet, this summer. “In any other business, you would never dream of treating your customers the way you treat those with views you don’t like. That is, unless you know your customers have no other serious options.”
Google has repeatedly denied allegations that it is suppressing conservative viewpoints. In a response to Lee’s letter, it said it applies “our policies to all content creators across the board and will not allow any form of political bias.”
Google’s mergers and acquisitions chief, Donald Harrison, is testifying at the Senate hearing Tuesday. According to prepared remarks, Harrison will emphasize that Google faces steep competition in the online advertising business and that advertising allows it to provide nearly all its services free to consumers.
“Any discussion of online advertising would be incomplete without mentioning the importance of advertising in supporting a free and open Internet,” Harrison wrote in his testimony.
Giving the best experience to consumers has been a key defense for Google in antitrust investigations for years. But rivals say Google controls too much of the advertising process by managing both the infrastructure for sellers and many of the websites where ads are placed.
Executives from business trade association NetChoice, tech company Chalice Custom Algorithms and Omidyar Network, a firm funded by eBay founder Pierre Omidyar, will also testify at the hearing, which started at 2:30 p.m.