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Google Antitrust Fight Thrusts Low-Key C.E.O. Into the Line of Fire

OAKLAND, Calif. — When Sundar Pichai succeeded Larry Page as the head of Google’s parent company in December, he was handed a bag of problems: Shareholders had sued the company, Alphabet, over big financial packages handed to executives accused of misconduct. An admired office culture was fraying. Most of all, antitrust regulators were circling.

On Tuesday, the Justice Department accused Google of being “a monopoly gatekeeper of the internet,” one that uses anticompetitive tactics to protect and strengthen its dominant hold over web search and search advertising.

Google, which has generated vast profits through a recession, a pandemic and earlier investigations by government regulators on five continents, now faces the first truly existential crisis in its 22-year history.

The company’s founders, Mr. Page and Sergey Brin, have left the defense to the soft-spoken Mr. Pichai, who has worked his way up the ranks over 16 years with a reputation for being a conscientious caretaker rather than an impassioned entrepreneur.

Mr. Pichai, a former product manager, may seem an unlikely candidate to lead his company’s fight with the federal government. But if the tech industry’s bumptious history with antitrust enforcement is any lesson, a caretaker who has reluctantly stepped into the spotlight might be preferable to a charismatic leader born to it.

Mr. Pichai, 48, is expected to make the case — as he has for some time — that the company is not a monopoly even though it has a 92 percent global market share of internet searches. Google is good for the country, so goes the corporate message, and has been a humble economic engine — not a predatory job killer.

“He has to come off as an individual who is trying to do the right thing not only for his company but broader society,” said Paul Vaaler, a business and law professor at the University of Minnesota. “If he comes off as evasive, petulant and a smart aleck, this is going to be a killer in front of the court and the court of public opinion.”

Google declined to make Mr. Pichai available for an interview. In an email to employees on Tuesday, he urged Google employees to stay focused on their work so that users will continue to use its products not because they have to but because they want to.

“Scrutiny is nothing new for Google, and we look forward to presenting our case,” Mr. Pichai wrote. “I’ve had Googlers ask me how they can help, and my answer is simple: Keep doing what you’re doing.”

Few executives have faced a challenge like this, and the most iconic figures in the technology industry have wilted under the glare of antitrust scrutiny.

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Credit…Stephen Crowley/The New York Times

Bill Gates, who was chief executive of Microsoft in the last big technology antitrust case brought by the Justice Department two decades ago, came across as combative and evasive in depositions, reinforcing the view that the company was a win-at-all-costs bully. Mr. Gates said last year that the lawsuit had been such a “distraction” that he “screwed up” the transition to mobile phone software and ceded the market to Google.

Mr. Page dealt with impending antitrust scrutiny with detachment, spending his time on futuristic technology projects instead of huddling with lawyers. Even as the European Union handed down three fines against Google for anticompetitive practices, Mr. Page barely addressed the matter publicly.

On a conference call with reporters on Tuesday, officials at the Justice Department declined to reveal whether they had spoken to Mr. Page during its investigation.

In its complaint, the Justice Department, along with 11 states, said Google had foreclosed competition in the search market by striking deals with handset manufacturers, including Apple, and mobile carriers to block rivals from competing effectively.

“For the sake of American consumers, advertisers and all companies now reliant on the internet economy, the time has come to stop Google’s anticompetitive conduct and restore competition,” the complaint said.

Google said that the case was “deeply flawed” and that the Justice Department was relying on “dubious antitrust arguments.”

Google is also the target of an antitrust inquiry by state attorneys general looking into its advertising technology and web search. And Europe continues to investigate the company over its data collection even after the three fines since 2017, totaling nearly $10 billion.

At Mr. Pichai’s side are senior executives who are also inclined to strike an accommodating tone. He has surrounded himself with other serious, buttoned-up career Google managers who bring a lot of boring to the table.

The point person for handling the case is Kent Walker, Google’s chief legal officer and head of global affairs. Though Mr. Walker, who worked at the Justice Department as an assistant U.S. attorney and joined Google in 2006, oversees many of the company’s messiest issues, he rarely makes headlines — a testament, current and former colleagues said, to his lawyerly pragmatism.

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Credit…Jim Wilson/The New York Times

Google has appointed Halimah DeLaine Prado as its new general counsel. A 14-year veteran of the company’s legal department, Ms. Prado was most recently a vice president overseeing the global team that advised Google on products including advertising, cloud computing, search, YouTube and hardware. While Ms. Prado doesn’t have a background in antitrust, she has been at Google since 2006 and is, by now, well versed in competition law.

The company is expected to rely heavily on its high-priced law firms to help manage the battle, including Wilson Sonsini Goodrich & Rosati, a top Silicon Valley firm, and Williams & Connolly, which has defended Google in other competition law cases.

Wilson Sonsini has represented Google from the company’s inception and helped it defend itself in a Federal Trade Commission investigation into its search business. In 2013, the agency chose not to bring charges.

Regardless of the legal argument for prosecuting Google as a monopoly, the case may shape the public perception of the company long after it has been resolved.

Until now, Google’s public posture has been a shrug. Mr. Pichai has said that the antitrust scrutiny is nothing new and that, if anything, the company welcomes the look into its business practices. Google has argued that it competes in rapidly changing markets, and that its dominance can evaporate quickly with the emergence of new rivals.

“Google operates in highly competitive and dynamic global markets, in which prices are free or falling and products are constantly improving,” Mr. Pichai said in his opening remarks to a House antitrust panel in July. “Google’s continued success is not guaranteed.”

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Credit…Pool photo by Graeme Jennings

Mr. Pichai is familiar with the machinations of antitrust proceedings. In 2009, when he was a vice president of product management, he lobbied the European competition authorities to take action on Microsoft’s Internet Explorer web browser.

“We are confident that more competition in this space will mean greater innovation on the web and a better user experience for people everywhere,” Mr. Pichai wrote in a blog post at the time, sentiments that search rivals say about Google today.

But shortly after he became Google’s chief executive in 2015, Mr. Pichai displayed his tendency for pragmatism when he buried the hatchet with Microsoft. The two companies agreed to stop complaining to regulators about each other.

Early in his tenure running Google, Mr. Pichai was reluctant to press its case in Washington — a job that one of his predecessors, Eric Schmidt, had reveled in. Mr. Schmidt, a big donor in Democratic politics, was a frequent visitor to the White House during the Obama presidency and served on the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology.

In 2018, Google declined to send Mr. Pichai to testify at a Senate Intelligence Committee hearing on Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election. Annoyed senators left an empty seat for the company’s representative next to executives from Facebook and Twitter. (Mr. Page was also invited to testify, but there was never any expectation from people within the company that he would.)

Since then, Mr. Pichai has made frequent trips to Washington, testified at other congressional hearings and held meetings with President Trump.

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Credit…Tom Brenner for The New York Times

Microsoft’s long battle with the government has also influenced how Google plans to wage its antitrust fight. Many Google executives believe Microsoft was too combative with the Justice Department, bringing the company to a standstill.

For most of the last decade, even as Google has dealt with antitrust investigations in the United States and Europe, the company has continued expanding into new businesses and acquire companies, such as the fitness tracker maker Fitbit last year.

Now the bill for that growth may have come due. And like it or not, it has been left to Mr. Pichai. Mr. Page, who is a year younger than Mr. Pichai and who Forbes says is worth $65 billion, is pursuing other interests.

Mr. Pichai “hasn’t had to deal with anything of this magnitude,” said Michael Cusumano, a professor and deputy dean at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Sloan School of Management. “He has to face the government. He has no choice.”

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Bill Gates, at Odds With Trump on Virus, Becomes a Right-Wing Target

In a 2015 speech, Bill Gates warned that the greatest risk to humanity was not nuclear war but an infectious virus that could threaten the lives of millions of people.

That speech has resurfaced in recent weeks with 25 million new views on YouTube — but not in the way that Mr. Gates probably intended. Anti-vaccinators, members of the conspiracy group QAnon and right-wing pundits have instead seized on the video as evidence that one of the world’s richest men planned to use a pandemic to wrest control of the global health system.

Mr. Gates, 64, the Microsoft co-founder turned philanthropist, has now become the star of an explosion of conspiracy theories about the coronavirus outbreak. In posts on YouTube, Facebook and Twitter, he is being falsely portrayed as the creator of Covid-19, as a profiteer from a virus vaccine, and as part of a dastardly plot to use the illness to cull or surveil the global population.

The wild claims have gained traction with conservative pundits like Laura Ingraham and anti-vaccinators such as Robert F. Kennedy Jr. as Mr. Gates has emerged as a vocal counterweight to President Trump on the coronavirus. For weeks, Mr. Gates has appeared on TV, on op-ed pages and in Reddit forums calling for stay-at-home policies, expanded testing and vaccine development. And without naming Mr. Trump, he has criticized the president’s policies, including this week’s move to cut funding to the World Health Organization.

Misinformation about Mr. Gates is now the most widespread of all coronavirus falsehoods tracked by Zignal Labs, a media analysis company. The misinformation includes more than 16,000 posts on Facebook this year about Mr. Gates and the virus that were liked and commented on nearly 900,000 times, according to a New York Times analysis. On YouTube, the 10 most popular videos spreading lies about Mr. Gates posted in March and April were viewed almost five million times.

Mr. Gates, who is worth more than $100 billion, has effectively assumed the role occupied by George Soros, the billionaire financier and Democratic donor who has been a villain for the right. That makes Mr. Gates the latest individual — along with Dr. Anthony Fauci, the leading U.S. infectious disease expert — to be ensnared in the flow of right-wing punditry that has denigrated those who appear at odds with Mr. Trump on the virus.

“Bill Gates is easily transformed into a health-related meme and figure because he’s so well known,” said Whitney Phillips, an assistant professor at Syracuse University who teaches digital ethics. “He’s able to function as kind of an abstract boogeyman.”

Especially since Mr. Gates has sharpened his comments about the White House’s handling of the coronavirus in recent weeks.

“There’s no question the United States missed the opportunity to get ahead of the novel coronavirus,” he wrote in an opinion column in The Washington Post on March 31. “The choices we and our leaders make now will have an enormous impact on how soon case numbers start to go down, how long the economy remains shut down and how many Americans will have to bury a loved one because of Covid-19.”

Mark Suzman, chief executive of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, Mr. Gates’s main philanthropic vehicle, said it was “distressing that there are people spreading misinformation when we should all be looking for ways to collaborate and save lives.”

Through a representative, Mr. Gates declined to be interviewed.

The conspiracy theories about Mr. Gates may particularly damage what people think about a future coronavirus vaccine, said Claire Wardle, executive director of First Draft, an organization that fights online disinformation. She said the narratives “have the potential to kick off coordinated and sophisticated online campaigns that turn people against taking a virus vaccine.”

YouTube, Twitter and Facebook, which also owns Instagram, said they were fighting coronavirus misinformation.

Mr. Gates, who founded Microsoft with Paul Allen in 1975 and built it into a software behemoth, has largely devoted his time to philanthropic endeavors since he stepped back from the company in 2008. As of 2018, the Gates Foundation had a $46.8 billion endowment, making it one of the world’s largest private charitable organizations.

The foundation has worked to distribute vaccines in developing countries, advocated family planning through greater use of contraceptives and funded the development of genetically modified crops. Those efforts have prompted unfounded accusations that Mr. Gates was hurting the world’s poor with unnecessary drugs and harmful crops while trying to suppress the global population.

His disdain for Mr. Trump, whom he has met several times, has also become public. In 2018, footage surfaced of Mr. Gates recounting how Mr. Trump needed help distinguishing H.I.V., which refers to the human immunodeficiency virus and causes AIDS, from HPV, which is the human papillomavirus, a sexually transmitted infection.

“Both times he wanted to know if there was a difference between H.I.V. and HPV, so I was able to explain that those are rarely confused with each other,” Mr. Gates said to laughter in comments to his foundation.

In January, when the coronavirus began spreading, the Gates Foundation committed $10 million to helping medical workers in China and Africa. In February, Mr. Gates weighed in on the illness, warning in The New England Journal of Medicine that Covid-19 was behaving like a once-a-century pathogen.

In addition to writing the Washington Post op-ed, he called for more and equitable testing in a Reddit “Ask Me Anything” session last month. This month, Mr. Gates appeared on “The Daily Show” and said his foundation would fund factories for the seven most promising potential vaccines.

On Wednesday, the Gates Foundation said it would commit $250 million — up from an earlier pledge of $100 million — to slow the disease’s spread.

By then, falsehoods about Mr. Gates had taken off. The first mention of a baseless conspiracy connecting him to the outbreak was on Jan. 21, according to the Times analysis. That was when a YouTube personality linked to QAnon suggested on Twitter that Mr. Gates had foreknowledge of the pandemic. The tweet was based on a coronavirus-related patent from the Pirbright Institute, a British group that received funding from the Gates Foundation.

The patent was not for Covid-19; it was connected to a potential vaccine for a different coronavirus that affects poultry. But two days later, the conspiracy website Infowars inaccurately said the patent was for “the deadly virus.”

The idea spread. From February to April, conspiracy theories involving Mr. Gates and the virus were mentioned 1.2 million times on social media and television broadcasts, according to Zignal Labs. That was 33 percent more often, it said, than the next-largest conspiracy theory: that 5G radio waves cause people to succumb to Covid-19.

Some of the theories tapped into Mr. Gates’s acquaintance with Jeffrey Epstein, the financier who was convicted of sex trafficking and committed suicide, saying a global elite had banded together to create the coronavirus.

In other theories, internet trolls twisted comments that Mr. Gates had made. In one, trolls said Mr. Gates, who had raised the idea of “digital certificates” to confirm who had the virus, wanted to surveil the population with microchip vaccination implants.

By April, false Gates conspiracy theories peaked at 18,000 mentions a day, Zignal Labs said.

The theories were amplified by people such as Mr. Kennedy, a son of former Senator Robert F. Kennedy, who campaigns against vaccines as a director of the Children’s Health Defense network. On his Instagram page, Mr. Kennedy has said Mr. Gates pushes vaccines to feed his other business interests.

On Tuesday, Mr. Kennedy posted a cartoon of a smiling Mr. Gates with a syringe and a caption: “Your Body, my choice.”

Mr. Kennedy, whose Instagram followers have doubled to more than 285,000 since March, said in an interview that he was telling the truth about the “terrible damage” that Mr. Gates had inflicted on the world with vaccines.

In an April 7 tweet, Ms. Ingraham, a Fox News host, shared a conspiracy theory about nefarious motives behind Mr. Gates’s call to track and identify who had received a Covid-19 vaccine. “Digitally tracking Americans’ every move has been a dream of the globalists for years,” she wrote.

Ms. Ingraham did not respond to a request for comment.

And Roger J. Stone Jr., the Trump confidant who was sentenced this year to 40 months in prison for felonies related to the 2016 Trump campaign, said in a radio interview this week reported by The New York Post that whether Mr. Gates “played some role in the creation and spread of this virus is open for vigorous debate.”

On Wednesday, after Mr. Gates said pulling funding to the World Health Organization was ill advised, the online reaction was swift. (The Gates Foundation funds the organization.)

One anti-vaccinator posted a poster of the movie “Kill Bill” on Instagram that read “Kill Bill Gates” and called for people to flood the comments on Mr. Gates’s Instagram account.

That same day, when Mr. Gates posted his thanks to health care workers, it received over 14,000 comments. One read: “This virus is a big, big lie.”

Michael H. Keller contributed reporting. Ben Decker contributed research.

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Bill Gates Stepping Down From Microsoft’s Board

SAN FRANCISCO — Bill Gates is stepping down from the board of Microsoft, the software giant he helped found more than four decades ago.Mr. Gates said on Friday that he would also step down from the board of Berkshire Hathaway, the conglomerate run by his close friend, Warren E. Buffett.“ …

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