If you really want to know what’s going on in tech, it’s hard to beat litigation. Lawsuits go far beyond all those glossy product launches and those “we share your concerns and are taking them seriously” press releases. Instead they unearth hidden documents, force reclusive executives to testify and bring secret feuds out into an open courtroom where the rest of us might get called for jury duty.
Lawsuits can also be confusing and time-consuming to watch, though. So we’re offering our guide to the most important cases we’ll be watching, or waiting for, in the U.S. in 2022.
U.S. v. Google: This is the Goliath vs. Goliath of tech lawsuits — an antitrust case the Justice Department brought in 2020, alleging that Google violated competition laws with how it distributed its dominant search engine. Almost every state is on board too, and the matter could end up being as important to antitrust as U.S. v. Microsoft. While the case still might not go to trial this year, disputes over document production, pending depositions and more have already pulled in major companies including Apple, Microsoft, Yelp, Samsung and others. We’ll also be keeping an eye on a separate antitrust lawsuit, originally brought by a coalition of states, that takes aim at Google’s online ads operation — the heart of its profits. That case has been consolidated during the pre-trial phase with private companies’ similar complaints, but the dispute has already produced a look at Google’s pricing, internal project codes and a secret agreement with Facebook. As if that weren’t enough, there’s a third multistate case digging into Google’s actions in the mobile environment.
FTC v. Facebook: The Federal Trade Commission brought this case in late 2020. The commission claims Facebook (now Meta) engaged in acquisitions designed to eliminate rivals. Foremost among those deals were the purchases of Instagram and WhatsApp, which the FTC hopes to make Meta spin off. A federal judge dismissed the FTC’s complaint last June but let the agency take another shot. Lina Khan, the commission’s tech-skeptical chair, then shepherded a renewed complaint that suggested Mark Zuckerberg pursued the acquisitions because Facebook had fallen behind when the world turned to mobile in the early 2010s. Up next is the question of whether the judge allows this new complaint to proceed, and if Facebook’s move to have Khan recuse herself will have any bearing on the case.
Epic v. Apple: This case actually gave us the gift of a trial last year, bringing both Tim Cook and Tim Sweeney to the stand and resulting in a decision that could fundamentally alter how App Store fees function. (Maybe.) For the time being, Apple successfully got an appeals court to stop implementation of the trial ruling that would have forced the company to let apps steer users to payment options that don’t require giving the iPhone maker a commission. The full appeal is still forthcoming, though, and Epic has also sued Google over its app store fees.
NetChoice v. Moody: Florida tried to force social media services to carry more conservative content. A trade group for the companies then sued, and has so far convinced the court to block implementation of the law on the grounds it impedes the firms’ First Amendment rights. Most serious scholars agree the Florida law is unconstitutional, but a debate is brewing about whether broad interpretations of the companies’ rights would get in the way of other tech regulations. There’s a parallel case in Texas too, and if Republicans regain some measure of power in Washington in this year’s elections, we can expect federal proposals that mirror the states’.
Doe v. Twitter: In this case, two boys, who were coerced into making sexually explicit videos while underage, sued Twitter, where the video ended up for a time. Their complaint showed that FOSTA — a controversial law that pared back tech platforms’ liability shield in an attempt to tackle online sex trafficking — may affect everyday social media services. In August, the company lost part of a motion to dismiss it which likely would have won before FOSTA, and may now have to face a trial.
Viasat v. FCC: Elon Musk wants to launch more satellites than have ever before ascended into the sky, and he’s not alone. This case raises the question of whether environmental reviews should extend to space as companies prepare to send up tens of thousands of satellites in coming years — but it’s also the most obvious conflict as the firms vie for advantage through Washington policy-making.
Henderson v. The Source for Public Data: A bit of a sleeper, this case has attracted significant interest from tech policy experts. At issue is whether Section 230, which protects platforms from lawsuits over user content, blocks a legal complaint under the Fair Credit Reporting Act. The plaintiffs here sued a website that allows users to search through third-party data databases. The website prevailed, but even some typical Section 230 defenders have dismissed the court’s reasoning. The case is now being appealed, with scholars watching for potential collisions between Section 230 and other federal requirements.
FTC v. Amazon (hypothetically): This hasn’t happened yet, and perhaps it still won’t. But the agency has been investigating Amazon since at least 2019, and the ecommerce giant and the FTC have both suggested they won’t let the other off easy. Washington, D.C., has already sued Amazon over the company’s treatment of third-party sellers. The FTC itself has looked into that issue, as well as probing moves like Amazon’s purchase of MGM.Chamber of Commerce v. FTC (hypothetically): Khan’s big changes to the FTC have already drawn legal threats from Big Business. And while such threats can often be empty, particularly in Washington, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce is no stranger to litigation, and a libertarian group has already sued the FTC over production of records. A potential target of lawsuits could include the way Khan has handled votes by a departed ally on the commission or her ambitious plans to regulate online data usage and illegal algorithmic discrimination in coming years.