On Thursday, the “free speech” social network Gab.ai filed a lawsuit against Google, alleging it had violated federal antitrust laws when it kicked the company’s app out of the Google Play Store.
Gab, which has become an online home for anti-PC crusaders, white supremacists, and the broader alt-right, is branding its lawsuit as a declaration of war against monopolistic Silicon Valley. Google says it booted Gab for violating its rules against hate speech, although it won’t say specifically how. Gab retorts that while its users are welcome to say what they want within some very loose bounds, and that it even takes issue with the term hate speech, it’s merely a platform not the utterer of any particular beliefs. If Google’s assessment for kicking an app off its marketplace relies on what the apps users say or do, Gab says, then by that criterion Twitter, Facebook, and Reddit should be removed, too. Doesn’t bigoted speech abound on Facebook and Twitter, Gab has argued, even if hateful rhetoric is not the official line on the company blog?
It was easy to cheer Google’s decision to disallow groups that provide a forum for hate speech to use its app store—Gab was removed right after the violent white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, after all. But while some other bans before and after that event—by Airbnb, Facebook, and others—were clear-cut cases of a public commons enforcing community standards, Google’s decision to take down an entire app was an example of a platform cracking down on another platform. Google’s Play Store, where Android users obtain apps, has a history of booting services that may have hurt or competed with the company’s business—powers that critics say the company has wielded capriciously. Google can remove Gab just as it can remove any other business it doesn’t agree with. That power, given Google’s history of wielding it, lends weight to the arguments of Gab’s zealots, who can correctly say that the company controls an astonishing number of services central to the online information economy, even as they disingenuously argue that Google is hounding them because they are a potential competitor. (Gab only has about 240,000 users.)
Google has an antitrust problem, one that politicians and policy wonks are increasingly eyeing. The places where the racists of the internet congregate, which have their own beef with Google, have noticed.
The Play Store, which Gab has highlighted, is one vector of that problem. If a startup can no longer list its app in Google’s marketplace, which is practically the only place to easily download an app on Android, that company stands to lose a lot of business—or may not be able to stay in business at all. Try to imagine how big Uber or Tinder would have gotten if they weren’t on Android. By the European Union’s estimate, roughly 80 percent of smartphones in the world run on Android. When Facebook or Airbnb ban users from their platforms, those users can ostensibly communicate with friends or book lodging elsewhere. When Google bans an app from its Android app store, it can knock a nascent startup out of existence.
The way Google runs its Android app store is similar to how it runs other parts of its business. Take products like Google’s local listings box, for example, which after Yelp filed a complaint with the federal government over, claiming Google had scraped more than 385,000 photos from Yelp to use on its own business listings. This happened after Yelp explicitly opted out of Google’s scraping, which Google was required to allow Yelp to do by order of the Federal Trade Commission in 2012. For its part, Google says it didn’t “intend” to swipe Yelp’s content. And earlier this year, the European Union slapped Google with a record-breaking $2.7 billion fine for allegedly abusing its market dominance to favor its own shopping service.
Gab’s removal isn’t the first time Google has booted an app for questionable reasons. In August 2014, a new privacy app called Disconnect Mobile launched in the Google Play Store and notched more than 5,000 downloads in the first five days—at which point Google showed it the door, claiming Disconnect violated Google’s terms of service because it interfered with other apps and ads. The purpose of Disconnect was to block nonconsensual third-party data collectors that monitor users as they surf the web and permit malicious tracking or serve malware. This was one way ad companies, including Google, collect data about your behavior in order to serve tailored ads, Disconnect claimed. According to Casey Oppenheim, Disconnect’s co-founder, the startup spent hundreds of thousands building the app, working to make sure it complied with Android’s terms of service.
While Gab is fighting its removal from the Google Play Store with a lawsuit in the U.S., Disconnect decided to send a complaint to the European Union, which is much more aggressive at punishing companies for anti-competitive practices than the U.S. The most recent major antitrust case in the U.S. was against Microsoft almost 20 years ago. In the EU, however, the next major tech antitrust case regulators plan to take up has to do with Android, and they may finalize a decision on it by the end of the year.
The EU alleges in a “statement of objections” that by requiring hardware manufacturers to pre-install Google apps under its current Android licensing practices, Google is closing the doors to rival search engines and browsers trying to enter the market. If the European Union finds that Google is in violation of its antitrust rules, the company could face fines that amount to up to 10 percent of its annual revenue, about $9 billion. What’s not clear, though, is whether the EU’s Android case will include how Google uses its dominance in the Play Store to quash competition, or if it will only narrowly address Android’s pre-installation requirements.
It’s not just Gab and Disconnect that have had run-ins with Google’s Play Store. In 2014, Google removed the Amazon app after Amazon added an app marketplace to its platform. And that same year, Aptoide, an independent app store from Portugal, filed a complaint with the EU alleging Google was systemically creating obstacles for Android users to download other app stores from Google Play. In 2013, Google deleted the popular app AdBlock Plus from the Android Play Store, too, since, like Disconnect, it interfered with “another service or product in an unauthorized manner.” In 2016, Google deleted another privacy app, Adblock Fast, shortly after it became one of the most popular apps in the Play Store—likewise for “interfering” with third-party services. If the EU did broaden its Android probe to include anti-competitive practices on the app marketplace, there seems to be no shortage of examples to draw from of how Google has wielded its dominance in questionable ways. (Google has also recently come up against accusations that it flexes its dominance in the marketplace of ideas. Recently New America, which receives funding from Google, was accused of censoring criticism of the company; New America denies this. New America is a partner with Slate and Arizona State University on Slate’s Future Tense section. And I had a brief internship at New America in 2013.)
As far as the Gab suit goes, Google said in a statement that its claims are “baseless” and that Google is “happy to defend our decision in court if need be.” Though Gab’s antitrust claims against Google can certainly be read as only the latest salvo in what’s become a battle between tech platforms and alt-right—as websites like Airbnb, Spotify, OkCupid, Twitter, Facebook, and various domain name registrars and security services have stopped doing business with groups that peddle hate speech—Gab does have a point. Google may very well have the power to decide what startups get to have viable, broadly accessible app-based businesses and which don’t. No matter if Google’s motivation in kicking Gab off is political or a matter of shutting down a competitor, both are unsettling possibilities.
Trusting Google to not be evil on these matters isn’t sufficient. The company, after all, has fought hard to oppose privacy laws. Its algorithms have a history of surfacing overtly racist results. Eric Schmidt, the former CEO of Google, heads an innovation advisory board at the Pentagon, which he has not resigned from even as other tech leaders have from federal advisory roles in light of President Trump’s policies and statements. And it’s not like Google has clean hands in the hate-speech department either. On Friday, BuzzFeed reported that Google’s ad-buying tool suggested advertisers consider targeting users with topics like “black people ruin neighborhoods” and “Jewish control of banks,” which Google says it is now working to fix. Given everything, the idea of Google using its market dominance to destroy companies it disagrees, whatever they are, is just as troubling as the company using its market dominance to quash competition.
On Monday, Gab got news that its domain registrar threatened to no longer host the website. But in that case, the new social media startup could try to find another domain service willing to do business with them. If Google’s decision to keep Gab off its Play Store holds up in court, it’ll be a social media network without an app. And without an app, a social media startup in 2017 might as well not exist at all.