Online review firm Yelp Inc. is unveiling a new Washington office today as the company steps up its activism on online competition and ramps up pressure for federal antitrust scrutiny of Alphabet Inc.'s Google.
Yelp’s first public policy event at the office will be focused on lessons learned from the Justice Department’s monopolization lawsuit against Microsoft Corp. during the Clinton administration. Google critics such as Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) and District of Columbia Attorney General Karl Racine are among those slated to speak.
“It’s a timely conversation to look at the 20th anniversary of the initiation of the last seminal enforcement action by the federal government against a large consumer tech firm, as people raise questions about whether companies like Google are abusing their dominance,” Luther Lowe, senior vice president of public policy at Yelp, a Google competitor, told Bloomberg Law.
Both Blumenthal and Racine have called on the Federal Trade Commission to reopen an antitrust investigation into Google’s search practices.
The FTC has a new slate of leaders who have pledged to hold big tech firms accountable to antitrust laws in response to growing concerns about their dominance from lawmakers and public interest advocates. But antitrust enforcement in this area would be cutting-edge and tough to prove, according to analysts.
In 2013, the FTC decided not to bring an antitrust case against Google after an investigation into whether the internet giant had a practice of skewing search results to favor its own services. Instead, the agency entered into an agreement with Google in which the search giant promised to distribute search results in a nonbiased way.
Lowe said that a lot has changed since then. One significant development is that Google has faced intense antitrust scrutiny in the European Union, where formal charges are pending.
“That potentially puts pressure on U.S. policymakers,” Lowe said. “European consumers are poised to get better protections than U.S. consumers.”
In addition, he said Yelp has grown as a company and is in a much better position to make a strong case against Google.
“We were a pretty tiny start up during the period when the FTC was investigating Google,” he said. “We didn’t even have a full-time government affairs department, let alone economists and lawyers who specialize in antitrust. I think that our ability to tell the story and make the argument is far more robust.”
The company’s new Washington location is primarily intended to be a sales and marketing office, and there are no immediate plans to increase the public policy team, which currently consists of just a few people. Still, Lowe said the space will facilitate “important public policy conversations related to issues that Yelp cares about such as open data, free speech, and fair competition online.”
Yelp reported spending a total of $70,000 in the first quarter of 2018 to lobby Washington policymakers on issues such as online competition. By comparison, Google spent more than $5 million during the same period.
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