The firm founded 21 years ago by then-Standford University grad students Sergey Brin and Larry Page has grown into a massive, extremely powerful company — nine of its products have reached the 1 billion user milestone — with its hands in search, news, online advertising, cloud computing, software, hardware, autonomous driving, robotics and artificial intelligence.
As fellow tech giant Facebook has faltered post-Cambridge Analytica scandal, dealing with its own Federal Trade Commission (FTC) antitrust probe, and drawing the lions' share of ire from U.S. lawmakers, Alphabet-owned Google has been happy to disappear into the bushes — like Homer Simpson in that famous GIF.
But the tide may be turning against Google, which began life with a "don't be evil" motto that was changed a few years back to "Do the right thing."
In the wake of this week's $170 million FTC fine over apparent violations of children's privacy laws, a reported new antitrust probe from more than half of American state attorneys general, a corporate culture that sees its top executives face allegations of sexual harassment or affairs with subordinates and internal complaints about discrimination against women and company retaliation – the Mountain View, Calif. company is at a crossroads.
Google, which is a division of Alphabet, is facing a host of different problems. Photographer: Krisztian Bocsi/Bloomberg via Getty Images
Attacked on the left for its dominance in search, for allowing the spread of misinformation on YouTube and for its treatment of contract workers, and pilloried on the right over allegations that it discriminates against conservatives, Google is facing a bipartisan backlash the likes of which it's never dealt with before. The company is also facing calls for its breakup from lawmakers, including Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass.
Some longtime industry watchers believe a potential breakup could spur a wave of new innovation in Big Tech.
"If they took YouTube off of Google, the first meeting of the YouTube board is 'let’s do search.' The first meeting of the Google board is 'let’s do video,'" said Kara Swisher, Recode editor-at-large, in a recent podcast. "And the fact that we have no new search engine since forever and no new social network since 2011 — which is Snapchat — no substantive social networks, no one’s going to go into those businesses because no one’s going to be able to compete."
Regardless of what ultimately happens on the regulatory front, Google's other woes aren't going away anytime soon.
Former Google employee Chelsey Glasson, who claims the company discriminated against her for being pregnant and wrote an internal memo about it that went viral, has filed a claim against Google with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.
"As a Google employee I witnessed pregnancy discrimination, and then was faced with it in my own life," Chelsey Glasson, who worked at the Mountain View, Calif. company for more than five years as a user research lead and manager, said in a statement this week. "And, like so many women, I felt threatened by retaliation for reporting the discrimination. This memo, which I published internally at Google and has been read by over 11,000 Google employees, states clearly why we must continue to fight this bias."
When it was reported in June that the Department of Justice, in concert with the FTC, is looking into Silicon Valley broadly over antitrust concerns, shares of Google's parent company dropped 6 percent — prompting some analysts to warn about the possibility of a breakup.
“To break up Google, the DoJ would likely have to file a lawsuit and convince judges that Google has undermined competition."
— Bank of America Merril Lynch Analyst Justin Post
“To break up Google, the DoJ would likely have to file a lawsuit and convince judges that Google has undermined competition. It is very rare to break up a company but not unheard of,” Bank of America Merrill Lynch analyst Justin Post wrote in a note, according to Reuters.
According to the complaint filed by the FTC and the New York Attorney General, YouTube explicitly marketed itself as a place for major toy companies to reach children between the ages of 6 and 11.
“Google and YouTube knowingly and illegally monitored, tracked, and served targeted ads to young children just to keep advertising dollars rolling in,” New York Attorney General Letitia James said in a statement. “These companies put children at risk and abused their power, which is why we are imposing major reforms to their practices and making them pay one of the largest settlements for a privacy matter in U.S. history. My office is committed to protecting children and holding those who put our kids in harm’s way — both on and offline — accountable.”
Google employees hold signs during a walkout to protest how the tech giant handled sexual misconduct in Mountain View, California, U.S., on Thursday, Nov. 1, 2018. (Getty Images)
When contacted by Fox News regarding the state attorneys general probe, Google spokesperson Jose Castaneda released the following statement:
“Google’s services help people every day, create more choice for consumers, and support thousands of jobs and small businesses across the country. We continue to work constructively with regulators, including attorneys general, in answering questions about our business and the dynamic technology sector."
Fox News' Chris Ciaccia contributed to this report.