The Office of Attorney General’s Legal Efforts to Hold Tech Companies Accountable

The DC Office of Attorney General (OAG) advocates for residents every day both locally and nationally, including by pursuing aggressive efforts to ensure tech companies follow the law. These companies have grown massively in recent years, and some of them have products that could go far to help support residents in their everyday lives. But unfortunately, we have also seen unacceptable abuses far too often by Big Tech and other technology companies.

Big Tech companies have misled District consumers, charged excessive amounts for services, consolidated power and stifled competition, and skirted District laws to illegally reap more profits at the expense of consumers and workers. No matter how innovative a company’s technology or business model might be, the same laws apply to them that apply to other businesses.

Solutions to rein in corporate power and protect consumers online do not solely rest in the hands of federal agencies, Congress, and the president—especially since gridlock too often stalls needed federal action. Attorneys General play a critical role in stopping anti-competitive behavior and enforcing consumer protection laws that help make sure residents’ rights, data, and privacy are protected.

In several of OAG’s lawsuits, our commitment to consumer protection pits us against the biggest, most powerful companies in the world. The Big 5 Tech companies (Alphabet, Meta, Amazon, Apple, and Microsoft) are collectively worth over $6 trillion. Meanwhile, our office’s budget is just .0025% of that—about $150 million annually. Nevertheless, OAG has had some significant victories, and continues to send the message that technology companies that break the law will pay the price just like their brick-and-mortar counterparts.

Listed below are OAG’s legal efforts to hold technology companies accountable:

Antitrust

  • Amazon: In 2021, OAG sued Amazon for illegally controlling prices through restrictive agreements with third-party sellers and wholesalers on Amazon’s platform. These agreements force sellers not to offer their products for lower prices on competing platforms, including their own websites, imposing an artificially high price floor across the online retail marketplace. They ensure that high fees charged to third-party sellers by Amazon—as much as 40% of the product price—are incorporated not only in the price charged on Amazon, but also in the prices charged on competing platforms across the online retail sales market. In March 2022, the judge incorrectly dismissed OAG’s complaint. In April 2022, OAG asked the Court to reconsider its decision, and later than month, the U.S. Justice Department pointed out errors in the dismissal and urged the court to reconsider.
  • Facebook: In 2020, OAG joined a lawsuit with a bipartisan coalition of 47 other state attorneys general against Facebook for illegally stifling competition to maintain its market dominance and boost profits, harming consumers, competitors, and advertisers. In 2021, a judge dismissed the complaint, but it is on appeal before the D.C. Circuit.
  • Google: In 2020, OAG joined an antitrust lawsuit with 37 other states against Google for engaging in illegal, anti-competitive conduct to maintain its monopoly power over online search engines and related advertising markets that hurts consumers and competitors. Additionally, OAG joined a second multistate antitrust lawsuit against Google alleging that Google used its monopolies in Android app distribution and Android in-app payment processing to charge supracompetitive rates for all in app purchases and deceived consumers about the harms of downloading apps outside of the Google Play Store.

Data Privacy

  • Google: In 2022, OAG filed a lawsuit against Google for deceiving and manipulating consumers to gain access to their location data, including by making it nearly impossible for users to stop their location from being tracked. Three other attorneys general also filed lawsuits in their own state courts in a bipartisan, coordinated effort to hold Google accountable for misleading and violating the privacy of its users. 
  • DC privacy legislation: In 2019, OAG introduced legislation before the DC Council to modernize the District’s data breach law, strengthen protections for residents’ personal information, and prevent identity theft. The legislation passed in 2020.
  • Facebook: In 2018, OAG sued Facebook for failing to protect the data of its users—tens of millions of users nationally and nearly half of all District residents—when Cambridge Analytica acquired and used that data to manipulate the 2016 election.
  • Mark Zuckerberg: In 2022, OAG sued Mark Zuckerberg for directly participating in decision-making that allowed the Cambridge Analytica data breach and misleading consumers about their data privacy.

Gig Economy

  • Grubhub: In 2022, OAG sued Grubhub, a food delivery company, for charging hidden fees and using deceptive marketing tactics during the heart of the COVID-19 pandemic to increase profits at the expense of consumers and struggling local restaurants.
  • Arise Virtual Solutions: In 2022, OAG filed a wage theft lawsuit against Arise and Comcast (which Arise provides customer service support for) for failing to pay legally due wages to customer service agents, including denying them minimum wage, overtime, and paid sick leave by misclassifying them as independent contractors rather than employees. 
  • Uber Eats and DoorDash: OAG successfully collaborated with Uber Eats and DoorDash in 2021 to secure better price disclosures for consumers about the cost discrepancy between in-app purchases and orders placed directly with restaurants. After OAG raised these issues, the companies addressed our concerns. Today, these delivery apps make clear that its prices may be more expensive than those charged by the restaurants themselves.
  • Instacart: In 2020, OAG filed a lawsuit against Instacart, a grocery delivery service, for charging District consumers millions of dollars in deceptive service fees and for failing to pay hundreds of thousands of dollars in District sales tax. Instacart tricked District consumers into believing they were tipping grocery delivery workers when, the company was actually charging them extra fees and pocketing the money.
  • DoorDash: In 2019, OAG filed suit against DoorDash, a food delivery service, for misleading consumers to believe that any tips would go directly to food delivery workers. But instead, the company effectively treated this money as extra profit for the company. OAG recovered $1.5 million in restitution that was returned to DoorDash drivers to replace tips the company pocketed for itself.
  • Handy Technologies: In 2016, OAG sued Handy Technologies, a gig economy company that provided home cleaning services for advertising that workers were background checked when they were not, and deceptively enrolled consumers into cleaning plans that billed them on a recurring basis. In 2017, OAG announced Handy would pay restitution to consumers harmed by the company.

Consumer Protection

  • Facebook vaccine misinformation: In 2021, OAG launched an investigation into whether Facebook has actually taken substantial efforts to reduce COVID-19 vaccine misinformation on its site, as it claims it is doing. After Facebook wouldn’t turn over many requested documents and materials, OAG issued a subpoena, which the court agreed to enforce in March 2022.
  • Letter on harms of Instagram to kids: In 2021, AG Racine joined 43 other state attorneys general in urging Facebook to abandon its plans to create an Instagram service for kids under the age of 13, citing detrimental health effects of social media on children and Facebook’s reportedly checkered past of protecting children on its platform.
  • Called on Facebook to halt weapon accessory ads: In the wake of the January 6th attack in 2021, AG Racine led a group of attorneys general in calling on Facebook to halt advertisements of military tactical gear and weapon accessories to known extremists amid heightened inauguration threats.
  • Apple: In 2020, OAG joined a lawsuit with 33 other attorneys general against Apple for deceiving consumers by intentionally slowing down or “throttling” the performance of iPhone devices to cover up battery problems. Battery defects in certain devices caused some iPhones to unexpectedly shut off and used software updates that slowed phone performance to continue concealing the issue. A settlement, reached in November 2020, required Apple to pay the District nearly $2.7 million as part of a $113 million multistate settlement and provide clear, truthful information to consumers about the phone batteries.
  • Getaround: OAG investigated Getaround, a car sharing company, for misrepresenting the safety and security of the platform, misleading consumers by using phony owner profiles for fleet cars actually owned by Getaround, and failing to collect and pay sales taxes for rentals in the District. OAG issued a consumer alert in February 2020 to raise awareness about concerns with auto thefts in the District that appeared to be connected to the use of this app. In July 2021, OAG announced Getaround will pay nearly $1 million in unpaid taxes and restitution to car owners that experienced theft or damage to their vehicles while listed on the platform.
  • Letter to Facebook on combating hate and disinformation: In 2020, AG Racine led a 20-state coalition urging Facebook to aggressively combat the amplification of hate and disinformation online in the lead-up to the 2020 presidential election.

Predatory Lending

  • OppFi: In 2021, OAG filed suit against OppFi, a predatory online lender, for deceptively marketing illegal high-interest loans to District consumers. OppFi charged over 4,000 District residents exorbitant interest rates of up to 198%—more than eight times the District’s 24% rate cap. In November 2021, OAG announced a more than $2 million settlement with the company.
  • Elevate: In 2020, OAG filed a lawsuit against Elevate, an online payday lender, that deceptively offered high-interest loans to vulnerable District consumers. Elevate had interest rates that ran up to 42 times over the District’s interest caps. The company unlawfully burdened over 2,500 financially vulnerable District residents with millions of dollars of debt. In February 2022, we announced that Elevate agreed to pay nearly $4 million to compensate misled borrowers.
  • Cashcall: In 2015, OAG sued Cashcall, a debt-purchasing company, that preyed on consumers and collected on consumer loans with interest rates often exceeding 300% annually—more than 12 times the maximum interest rate allowed by District law. In 2017, the company agreed to provide nearly $3 million in refunds and debt forgiveness to more than 1,300 District consumers impacted.

Anti-discrimination

  • Algorithmic bias legislation: In 2021, OAG introduced legislation before the DC Council – the first comprehensive bill of its type across the country – which would hold businesses accountable for preventing biases in their automated decision-making algorithms, and require them to report and correct algorithms that have shown biases in housing, employment, credit, and health care.
  • Zillow and Apartments.com: In October 2019, OAG announced a partnership with Apartments.com to eliminate ads on its platform that discriminate against renters who rely on Section 8 vouchers and other forms of housing assistance. In November, Zillow agreed to do the same.