Lots of people are gunning for Google. Meet the man who might have the best shot.

A coalition of states is about to file suit against the search giant. Colorado Attorney General Phil Weiser has spent his life preparing for this moment.

Lots of people are gunning for Google. Meet the man who might have the best shot.

Phil Weiser, a law professor, antitrust expert and Colorado attorney general, is co-leading the bipartisan coalition of state attorneys general investigating Google's search dominance.

Photo: Joe Amon/Getty Images

Washington's efforts to rein in Big Tech regularly devolve into circus sideshows, with ill-informed members of Congress more interested in ranting than regulating and the president making threats so extreme that nobody bothers to take them seriously.

A wonk-y lawyer in Colorado thinks he can do better.

Phil Weiser, a law professor and antitrust expert who was elected Colorado's attorney general in 2018, is co-leading the bipartisan coalition of state attorneys general investigating Google's search dominance and serves on the executive committee of a separate state investigation into Facebook, which is led by New York State Attorney General Letitia James.

He says it's the work he's meant to do.

"I am very fluent in technology and fluent in antitrust," Weiser told Protocol in an interview. "So as cases come up like Facebook and Google, it's natural for me to be on the executive committee and to play an important role in both of them."

People who've worked with Weiser say he's a formidable foe to Big Tech because of his heads-down, scholarly approach; it's hard to strong-arm or dump oppo about a former antitrust academic-turned-government official who has hundreds of pages of writing justifying his position at the helm of the Google investigation.

Weiser's not a "break 'em up" ideologue, said people familiar with his thinking. Over the course of his career, he's faced criticism for his willingness to bring industry to the table and has readily admitted to the limitations of antitrust law. "He wants to push the envelope but in a way that's respectful and understands case law and precedent and the judiciary," said Carl Shapiro, an economist at the University of California, Berkeley, who worked with Weiser in Obama's DOJ antitrust division and has consulted for Google.

That may not be enough for progressives rooting for the state and federal cases against Google to result in the company's breakup, a movement that has a loud voice and increasing political power. "The states' effort to investigate Google is incredibly important," said Sally Hubbard, the director of enforcement at the anti-monopoly think tank Open Markets Institute. "If the federal enforcers don't do their job, the states are there to fill the gaps in enforcement."

"The first step is making sure the cases are brought, but the next step is making sure the cases are pursued aggressively," Hubbard said. She's calling for "real solutions that are structural in nature, not promises that are hard to enforce."

But Weiser and people who know him say he is approaching the Google case with an eye toward what is possible under antitrust law — and an understanding that many of the toughest remedies would be hard to get through the courts. "We need to test and be able to prove whatever we are asserting in a court of law, which means we've got to kick the tires on our work and we've got to kick them hard," Weiser said.

"Phil is both very progressive and also very pragmatic," said former FTC Chairman Joe Leibowitz, who is a counsel at Davis Polk & Wardwell. "He understands the need for ensuring that relief is strong … He also has a deep understanding of the courts, which are likely to be somewhat resistant to structural breakup."

Weiser is leading the Google search coalition alongside Nebraska Attorney General Doug Peterson, a Republican who has a good relationship with the Department of Justice. And he has a secret weapon: his adviser Jon Sallet, the former FCC general counsel who helped shape and defend net neutrality law and is guiding the Google search case. Sallet's known for pushing the envelope on interpretations of antitrust law and regulation. "[Sallet is] aggressive without being disruptive – it's a Jedi skill level," said one congressional aide.

Their coalition, which includes Iowa, Nebraska, Colorado, Tennessee, New York, North Carolina and Utah, is expected to file suit against Google in the coming weeks. Their plan is to consolidate their complaint with the narrower case the DOJ has already filed against Google.

The states are following the Microsoft playbook — a case that Weiser was deeply influenced by early in his career.

Twenty years of thinking

Weiser said he's been concerned about the disruptive power of emerging technology platforms since he was involved in the Justice Department's case against Microsoft in the late 1990s. After he spent time clerking for former Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Byron White, he was hired by DOJ antitrust chief Joel Klein to help implement the 1996 Telecommunications Act, the first piece of legislation to address internet access in the U.S. He participated in the Microsoft case during his two years at the department.

"The [question] I've thought about over the last 20 years is, what do we do to protect consumers and to serve society in this emerging world?" Weiser said.

That's the question that prompted him in 1999 to found the Silicon Flatirons Center at the University of Colorado, which holds an annual conference attended by a veritable who's-who in the antitrust world. "That program brought together telecommunications, antitrust and technology scholars, along with leading business people, engineers, economists, lawyers, government officials," said Howard Shelanski, a partner at Davis Polk & Wardwell who has attended the conference more than a dozen times. "He built that into a remarkably successful program that year after year held a series of the most important conferences on telecommunications and technology policy in the country."

At times, Weiser has been accused of maintaining overly friendly relationships with the industry, regularly inviting tech and telecom representatives to play a central role in his conferences and advocating for government and business to work hand-in-hand. After all, it's their money that helped fund the Silicon Flatirons program.

But his approach, for the most part, is best defined as consumer-focused, and he spent years guiding the direction of tech and telecommunications policy from his perch in Boulder, where he "literally wrote the book" on telecommunications law and policy, said former FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler. "Digital Crossroads," a widely-cited rundown of the disruptive power of technology which Weiser co-authored with Jonathan E. Nuechterlein, remained on Wheeler's bookshelf throughout his tenure as chair of the FCC under Obama.

It was that academic work that convinced former head of the DOJ antitrust division, Christine Varney, to hire Weiser during the first years of the Obama administration. As the deputy assistant general in the DOJ antitrust division, Weiser pushed for strong action against corporate power, and on day one began irritating large companies with his push to rescind a Bush-era report on Section 2 of the Sherman Act – incidentally the same law that the DOJ is alleging Google violated.

After Weiser participated in several White House task forces on technology and antitrust issues, Varney said she got a call from Obama's chief of staff at the time letting her know that the White House wanted him to come on board. The White House whisked him away to the National Economic Council, where he formulated the Obama administration's spectrum policy.

"Phil Weiser is a rarity," said Larry Summers, the former Treasury Secretary and Harvard president, who was the director of the NEC at the time. "A first-rate lawyer, with real tech insight and a keen political sensibility. He will over time have, I suspect, a major impact as big tech looms ever larger as a public policy issue."

More than anything, across his time in academia and eventually government, Weiser was seen as a guy who knew his stuff – a nerd who would regularly cite his own academic papers in conversation and enjoyed nothing more than a long, winding conversation about the future of antitrust law in the U.S.

One time, when Varney called in sick, Weiser showed up at her doorstep with a bowl of chicken soup and a brief he wanted her to read. "He said, 'Eat this soup and read the brief,'" Varney recounted. Dale Hatfield, an executive fellow at the Silicon Flatirons Center and adjunct professor who has worked in telecom policy for over 50 years, said he remembers Weiser, his personal friend, contentedly reading a scholarly paper while playing Scrabble against Hartfield and their wives during a vacation in New Mexico.

Weiser brims with energy and is rarely seen without a Diet Coke. During his initial years as a public servant, he was well liked but fairly awkward, according to those who worked with him, with deep roots in academia – not necessarily the ideal politician. It wasn't until he became dean of the University of Colorado Law School in 2011 that he really began to learn to do politics, including the schmoozing and money-raising and public speaking that's part of the job.

"If you'd ask me 10 or 12 years ago, 'What do you think the chances are that Phil would leave academia and become the AG of the state of Colorado?' I probably would've said he's an unlikely candidate," said Leibowitz, the former chair of the FTC and attorney at Davis Polk & Wardwell. "But he turned out to be a terrific AG."

Political future

Today, as attorney general of Colorado, Weiser is applying all that wonkiness and passion to the Google and Facebook cases, the most significant government action against tech companies in decades.

"He's been a great asset to the group," said Iowa Attorney General Tom Miller, who is also participating in the coalition investigating Google search and led the states' case against Microsoft in the 1990s. "His expertise has been very welcome and it's helped us a lot on the Google case."

It's typical for state attorneys general to learn on the job and rely on their expert staff to handle the nitty-gritty of complicated investigations, a situation that's easy for large companies to exploit. But "that's going to be a lot harder here," said Michael Kades, a former FTC attorney and director with the Washington Center for Equitable Growth.

"I think it could be really sort of a watershed moment for the role of state AGs in antitrust enforcement," Kades said.

It's not as clear that it will be a watershed moment for Weiser in Colorado. He's up for reelection in 2022, and he's already facing some pressure from the business community in Colorado, where a group of small businesses has been raising concerns about the downstream effects of taking on the country's largest tech companies. In a letter over the summer, those Colorado businesses, organized by the Connected Commerce Council, warned it's "the wrong time to demand changes in digital technology operations and business models."

Jake Ward, the president of the Connected Commerce Council, said many of the Colorado businesses he spoke with questioned the state's involvement in the Google case. "What we heard is, 'Don't they have bigger fish to fry? Why is this what they're spending time on?'"

"They, for the most part, are not interested in the minutia of an investigation or a case," Ward said. "What they're interested in is maintaining access to the tools they use."

For several months, D.C. insiders floated Weiser's name for a number of positions in a Biden administration, including FTC chair or head of the DOJ's antitrust division. But Weiser said he's happy exactly where he is. "I look forward to working with the DOJ and the FTC in the years ahead," Weiser said. "But I'm where I'm meant to be."


Judge Zia Faruqui is trying to teach you crypto, one ‘SNL’ reference at a time

His decisions on major cryptocurrency cases have quoted "The Big Lebowski," "SNL," and "Dr. Strangelove." That’s because he wants you — yes, you — to read them.

The ways Zia Faruqui (right) has weighed on cases that have come before him can give lawyers clues as to what legal frameworks will pass muster.

Photo: Carolyn Van Houten/The Washington Post via Getty Images

“Cryptocurrency and related software analytics tools are ‘The wave of the future, Dude. One hundred percent electronic.’”

That’s not a quote from "The Big Lebowski" — at least, not directly. It’s a quote from a Washington, D.C., district court memorandum opinion on the role cryptocurrency analytics tools can play in government investigations. The author is Magistrate Judge Zia Faruqui.

Keep ReadingShow less
Veronica Irwin

Veronica Irwin (@vronirwin) is a San Francisco-based reporter at Protocol covering fintech. Previously she was at the San Francisco Examiner, covering tech from a hyper-local angle. Before that, her byline was featured in SF Weekly, The Nation, Techworker, Ms. Magazine and The Frisc.

The financial technology transformation is driving competition, creating consumer choice, and shaping the future of finance. Hear from seven fintech leaders who are reshaping the future of finance, and join the inaugural Financial Technology Association Fintech Summit to learn more.

Keep ReadingShow less
The Financial Technology Association (FTA) represents industry leaders shaping the future of finance. We champion the power of technology-centered financial services and advocate for the modernization of financial regulation to support inclusion and responsible innovation.

AWS CEO: The cloud isn’t just about technology

As AWS preps for its annual re:Invent conference, Adam Selipsky talks product strategy, support for hybrid environments, and the value of the cloud in uncertain economic times.

Photo: Noah Berger/Getty Images for Amazon Web Services

AWS is gearing up for re:Invent, its annual cloud computing conference where announcements this year are expected to focus on its end-to-end data strategy and delivering new industry-specific services.

It will be the second re:Invent with CEO Adam Selipsky as leader of the industry’s largest cloud provider after his return last year to AWS from data visualization company Tableau Software.

Keep ReadingShow less
Donna Goodison

Donna Goodison (@dgoodison) is Protocol's senior reporter focusing on enterprise infrastructure technology, from the 'Big 3' cloud computing providers to data centers. She previously covered the public cloud at CRN after 15 years as a business reporter for the Boston Herald. Based in Massachusetts, she also has worked as a Boston Globe freelancer, business reporter at the Boston Business Journal and real estate reporter at Banker & Tradesman after toiling at weekly newspapers.

Image: Protocol

We launched Protocol in February 2020 to cover the evolving power center of tech. It is with deep sadness that just under three years later, we are winding down the publication.

As of today, we will not publish any more stories. All of our newsletters, apart from our flagship, Source Code, will no longer be sent. Source Code will be published and sent for the next few weeks, but it will also close down in December.

Keep ReadingShow less
Bennett Richardson

Bennett Richardson ( @bennettrich) is the president of Protocol. Prior to joining Protocol in 2019, Bennett was executive director of global strategic partnerships at POLITICO, where he led strategic growth efforts including POLITICO's European expansion in Brussels and POLITICO's creative agency POLITICO Focus during his six years with the company. Prior to POLITICO, Bennett was co-founder and CMO of Hinge, the mobile dating company recently acquired by Match Group. Bennett began his career in digital and social brand marketing working with major brands across tech, energy, and health care at leading marketing and communications agencies including Edelman and GMMB. Bennett is originally from Portland, Maine, and received his bachelor's degree from Colgate University.


Why large enterprises struggle to find suitable platforms for MLops

As companies expand their use of AI beyond running just a few machine learning models, and as larger enterprises go from deploying hundreds of models to thousands and even millions of models, ML practitioners say that they have yet to find what they need from prepackaged MLops systems.

As companies expand their use of AI beyond running just a few machine learning models, ML practitioners say that they have yet to find what they need from prepackaged MLops systems.

Photo: artpartner-images via Getty Images

On any given day, Lily AI runs hundreds of machine learning models using computer vision and natural language processing that are customized for its retail and ecommerce clients to make website product recommendations, forecast demand, and plan merchandising. But this spring when the company was in the market for a machine learning operations platform to manage its expanding model roster, it wasn’t easy to find a suitable off-the-shelf system that could handle such a large number of models in deployment while also meeting other criteria.

Some MLops platforms are not well-suited for maintaining even more than 10 machine learning models when it comes to keeping track of data, navigating their user interfaces, or reporting capabilities, Matthew Nokleby, machine learning manager for Lily AI’s product intelligence team, told Protocol earlier this year. “The duct tape starts to show,” he said.

Keep ReadingShow less
Kate Kaye

Kate Kaye is an award-winning multimedia reporter digging deep and telling print, digital and audio stories. She covers AI and data for Protocol. Her reporting on AI and tech ethics issues has been published in OneZero, Fast Company, MIT Technology Review, CityLab, Ad Age and Digiday and heard on NPR. Kate is the creator of RedTailMedia.org and is the author of "Campaign '08: A Turning Point for Digital Media," a book about how the 2008 presidential campaigns used digital media and data.

Latest Stories