Iowa Attorney General Tom Miller joins antitrust investigations of Google and Facebook

Iowa Attorney General Tom Miller. — illustration by Jav Ducker

Iowa Attorney General Tom Miller announced this week that he’s one of eight state attorneys general leading an investigation into Google’s business practices. The probe is aimed at determining whether the company is violating antitrust laws.

“It’s very early in the investigation and we have drawn no conclusions,” Miller said in a press release. “The broad question we are examining is whether Google has achieved and maintained its dominance through business practices designed to thwart competition. We are concerned about Google’s control of so much of the information and commerce on the internet, and this power has been gained without transparency.”

Attorneys general from 48 states, as well as those of Puerto Rico and the District of Columbia, are participating in the probe. Only officials from Alabama and California have declined to join.

Miller, a Democrat, is part of the bipartisan group — four Democrats and four Republicans — supervising the investigation. Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton, a Republican, is the group’s chair.

During a press conference on Monday, Paxton said the probe will focus first on Google and online advertising.

“While many consumers believe the internet is free we know that the internet is not free,” he said. “[Google] is a company that dominates all aspects of advertising on the internet and searching on the internet.”

In his statement, Miller said, “Iowans are right to question what information Google collects and shares about them, how it targets them with advertising, how it chooses what information to prioritize, how it limits its access to new innovations, and how it does so on so many platforms and products.”

Paxton said the probe — which he stressed may not lead to a lawsuit — will expand beyond its examination of advertising, but didn’t offer any timeline for the investigation. Antitrust investigations typically take several years to complete.

Miller announced his involvement in the Google probe just days after he announced he had joined eight other state attorneys general — four Democrats and four Republicans — in an investigation into whether Facebook has violated antitrust laws. That investigation is being led by New York Attorney General Letitia James.

“We will use every investigative tool at our disposal to determine whether Facebook’s actions may have endangered consumer data, reduced the quality of consumers’ choices, or increased the price of advertising,” James, a Democrat, said in a statement on Sept. 6.

“Facebook’s dominance over communications and information is concerning, and that’s why we are joining this bipartisan coalition to examine whether the company has violated antitrust laws,” Miller explained in a press release on the same day.

These two investigations are Miller’s highest-profile acts of coordination with other state attorneys general since May, when he agreed to ask Gov. Kim Reynolds for permission to file federal lawsuits or join lawsuits filed by other states.

“This means that generally I will not be suing the Trump administration,” Miller said when the deal announced.

Miller had angered Republicans in the Iowa Legislature by joining with other attorneys general to oppose Trump administration policies more than 40 times, starting with the so-called “Muslim ban” in February 2017.

“I find it extremely interesting that in 2017 alone, the attorney general has joined in 35 lawsuits against the current administration,” Rep. Gary Worthan said in May 2018. “In the four years prior, he participated in no lawsuits against the [Obama] administration.”

The Storm Lake Republican was explaining why his party was pushing through a $600,000 budget cut of Miller’s office to punish the attorney general for his opposition to the Trump administration.

Miller continued to join multi-state legal actions against the president despite the budget cut. During this year’s legislative session, Republicans passed a bill including a requirement that the attorney general gets the approval of the governor, or the state’s executive council (which includes the governor), before joining any multi-state lawsuit.

After negotiating with Miller, Reynolds used her line-item veto to remove the provision. In return, Miller promised to voluntarily abide by the restrictions the vetoed section of the bill would have imposed.

Miller entered into the agreement to prevent restrictions aimed at him to apply to any future attorney general.

“My greater concern was always about the institution of the Attorney General and its powers and duties,” Miller said. “My successors were always more important than the current Attorney General.”

In recent years, Republican-controlled legislatures in Wisconsin and Michigan have passed laws limiting the powers of their states’ attorneys general (in both cases, the attorney general is a Democrat), but neither state included the sort of blanket restriction on federal lawsuits that Miller agreed to.

In July, Miller asked the governor for permission to join other states in a federal lawsuit for the first time since the agreement. The lawsuit challenges the Trump administration’s effort to reduce regulatory standards on air pollution produced by coal-fired power plants. Reynolds refused.

“She does not believe it’s in the best interest of Iowans for the state to join in this lawsuit,” a Reynolds spokesperson said to explain the governor’s decision.

Because both the Google and Facebook actions are still just investigations, Miller did not have to seek the governor’s permission.

Miller is currently in his 10th term as attorney general. He was first elected in 1978.

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