COLUMBIA, Mo. — There is nothing very intimidating about Missouri Attorney General Josh Hawley, the 38-year-old grandson of a farmer with a slight frame, affable personality and constant smile. He’s a package filled with grace not heat.
But beware the silent warrior. Like David taking on Goliath, Hawley is going after Google — a company so entrenched in our lives, it knows how we shop, where we travel, what we read and, thanks to our calendars, what we’re up to every single day of our lives.
A single company holding such an awesome amount of power deserves scrutiny, says Hawley, who served in private practice and as a law clerk at the US Supreme Court before becoming AG.
So, in November of last year, the father of two launched an investigation to find out if Google is violating antitrust laws to crush its competitors.
“Someone at some point has to take a stand and ask the hard question, ‘What exactly is it that Google is doing with our personal information?’ ” Hawley told The Post. “It’s time somebody held them accountable for the information they are collecting and how they are using it.”
Search-engine companies like Google make the majority of their money through advertising. Hawley wants to know how Google collects and uses its customers’ private information, and if they bias search-engine results to hurt or bury other content providers’ information and advertising. Last summer the European Commission hit Google with a record $2.7 billion fine for unfairly favoring their own services over those of competitors.
Right now, Hawley’s probe is the first against Google in the US, but as more tech titans such as Facebook come under fire for their misuse of customer data, it likely won’t be the last.
“One of my concerns is that they are not telling consumers exactly what it is they’re collecting and then selling it to third parties,” Hawley said. “I just want the facts. I want to know where our information is going.”
His crusade is reminiscent of 100 years ago when the Supreme Court ruled in favor of breaking up Standard Oil, which then controlled 90 percent of the US oil industry. Google’s dominance is not that different. Its market share of the search-engine industry is also about 90 percent.
Tech companies’ imprint on our lives is so massive that we sometimes forget how reliant we are on them — until we learn about the potentially disastrous results. Last week, it emerged that Facebook allowed a political data firm to harvest private information from more than 50 million users without letting them know, which would be a violation of a 2011 consent decree with the Federal Trade Commission. And a violation of consumer trust.
The story led to worldwide condemnation and probes being launched — from Israel to Massachusetts — into the social network’s practices.
“It’s time for big tech to be held accountable,” Hawley says of Facebook. And that’s why he’s starting with Google first.
“Google is the most powerful corporation in the world. It collects more personal, private information on consumers than any company in history.” He added that you can’t let the big guys get away with everything “just because they are so big.”
A graduate of Stanford and Yale Law School, Hawley has come a long way from the small town of Lexington, Mo., where he grew up. “Dad was a banker, Mom was a teacher. They all instilled in me that idea that you can achieve your goals, no matter the setbacks, if you put your back into it,” he said.
But it was his grandfather — a farmer and first-generation American — who influenced him most with his grit and determination. “He taught me not just to be proud to be American, but why, and how to live up to that promise.”
When Hawley ran for state attorney general in 2016, neither the establishment Republicans or the Democrats thought much of him, but he beat candidates on both sides to become the state’s first Republican AG in 24 years. He is now planning to challenge Democrat incumbent Claire McCaskill for a US Senate seat in Missouri later this year. His Google probe certainly won’t hurt his political ambitions. In today’s climate, it’s not enough to simply say big corporations are out to screw you. You have to be equally agitated with the newer powers, too — big technology, big media and big Hollywood — and be willing to take them on once you hold office.
So far, Google is cooperating with the investigation and Hawley is working out his next move, which, he says, might include legal action in court. In November, Google spokesman Patrick Lenihan said his company “has strong privacy protections in place and conducts business in a highly competitive environment.”
Hawley, meanwhile, sees a different side to the matter. “My very job description is to enforce the law,” he said. “And if that means taking on the big guys and protecting the people of my state, then that risk is worth it.”
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