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Google's 2020: Search giant clashes with DC over antitrust, misinformation

After feuding with its employees, Google is now crossing swords with lawmakers and regulators.

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Google CEO Sundar Pichai testifies virtually before Congress.

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Almost exactly a year ago, Google co-founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin dropped some bombshell news. After more than 20 years, the two men were stepping down from company leadership. Sundar Pichai would take the reins of Google parent Alphabet going forward.

Pichai, who was already running the conglomerate's biggest unit, was experienced in the battles that mark corporate life. The soft-spoken executive had dealt with employee protests over Google's work in China and the company's handling of sexual misconduct allegations against senior executives. The fallout from those labor scrapes continues to this day.

2020, however, would bring even more bruising fights to Pichai's office. Tensions with Washington had been rising for years. Now Google was facing even more heat from lawmakers and regulators, who were increasingly uneasy with its power and influence. 

The year about to end will be remembered at Google for the federal government ratcheting up its fight with the tech giant. Long-standing antitrust woes coalesced into a once-in-a-generation lawsuit brought by the US Department of Justice. Lawmakers circled around the company as it failed to corral election misinformation running rampant on YouTube, Google's video arm. An unprecedented pandemic spawned hoaxes that drew ire from all corners. Pichai was called to task in Washington. 

Google's battles with the government didn't prevent it from launching new products, including its flagship Pixel 5 phone and a next-generation Nest smart speaker. But those announcements were at times overshadowed by the controversy Google faced at a corporate level.

Here's a look at some of the biggest challenges Google faced this year.

A landmark antitrust case

Google's biggest crisis in recent history came in October. After a more-than-yearlong investigation, the DOJ filed a landmark antitrust lawsuit against the company for alleged monopolies in search and search advertising. 

The lawsuit alleges that Google broke antitrust law by cutting deals with phone makers like Apple and Samsung to be the default search engine on their devices, a move that boxed out competitors. Google has also been accused of taking advantage of the dominance of its Android operating system to pressure device makers into preloading its apps on phones powered by the software.

Google has denied engaging in anticompetitive behavior. It said the DOJ case is "deeply flawed."

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Google isn't alone in facing antitrust blowback from Washington. In July, Pichai appeared virtually at a hearing before the House Judiciary Committee's antitrust subcommittee, alongside Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg, Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos and Apple CEO Tim Cook. Most of the attacks, however, were lobbed at Pichai, who withstood withering grillings from both Republicans and Democrats. The heat Pichai absorbed took the focus off the other tech leaders. Bezos, the world's richest man, appeared bored at times and was caught snacking on camera. 

Google's antitrust woes will only mount as the year draws to a close. A group of seven states plans to file another lawsuit against Google this month. The suit is expected to be consolidated with the federal government's case.

Election misinformation abounds

The 2016 election was marred by Russian interference as agents exploited big tech platforms to sow discord among voters. As a result, Google and its peers, Facebook and Twitter, have been in the doghouse in Washington. 

With another high-stakes election this year, tech companies were eager to prove they were prepared. YouTube game-planned for months, introducing fact-check labels to counter misinformation about mail-in ballots or false election results. 

Still, misinformation flourished on the site. In the days after the Nov. 3 presidential election, YouTube was criticized for refusing to take down videos posted by One America News, a far-right news organization. The clips falsely declared victory for President Donald Trump and baselessly claimed that opponents had rigged the contest. YouTube prevented the videos from earning revenue and slapped labels on them with the warning "Results may not be final." The label also appeared with all election-related search results and videos. 

The company took down multiple livestreams broadcasting fake election results hours before polls closed anywhere in the country, but not before the videos were already viewed by thousands of people. 

Lawmakers weren't happy. In a letter to YouTube CEO Susan Wojcicki, Senate Democrats expressed concern over the impact of false news designed to delegitimize President-elect Joe Biden's victory. The senators also said they're worried about the effect misinformation could have on two January runoff elections in Georgia, which will decide which party controls the Senate.

Coronavirus confusion

The COVID-19 crisis has also tested Google's relationship with Washington.

When the pandemic took hold in March, the first public communication between Google and the Trump administration led to confusion. During a White House address to declare the pandemic a national state of emergency, Trump said Google was working with the administration on a website to give people information about coronavirus testing. 

Caught off guard, Google and government officials sought to clarify the project and its scope. Turns out that Verily, a corporate sibling of Google focused on health and life sciences, was designing the website to provide online screening tools for testing. Initially the website would be focused only on the San Francisco Bay Area, where Google is based. 

After the site launched, Senate Democrats -- including now Vice President-elect Kamala Harris -- worried about the privacy implications of the project. The lawmakers raised concerns about the website's compliance with the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act, or HIPAA, the federal law regulating the security and privacy of certain medical information. The senators also took issue with the website requiring a Google account to take the screening diagnostic, a requirement that also drew scrutiny from privacy advocates.

Google has launched tools to try to help people through the pandemic, including contact tracing software and COVID-19 mapping features. Still, the company has gotten in trouble for helping spread misinformation about the virus through videos. In May, Rep. Adam Schiff, a Democrat from California, wrote to Google and YouTube urging the platforms to warn users if they'd engaged with bogus coronavirus information, like conspiracy theories linking the virus to 5G towers, even if the content had since been taken down. 

YouTube's primary approach to combating misinformation is to add fact-check labels that link to official sources, like the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The company launched a COVID-19 label earlier on during the pandemic, and added another label about vaccine information last month.