SALT LAKE CITY — Utah did not appear as one of the co-plaintiffs in a Justice Department filing Tuesday of an antitrust lawsuit against online search giant Google, but the state may be readying its own separate action targeting the company.
The filing in federal court in Washington, D.C., which alleges Google misused its market dominance in online search and advertising, marks the most significant U.S. legal action taken against a Big Tech firm since the landmark United States vs. Microsoft case in the early 2000s.
The Utah Attorney General’s Office has been working with a team of fellow attorneys general from around the country for over a year looking at potential misconduct by big U.S. tech firms. Now, 11 states have joined the U.S. Department of Justice in their filing while Utah — along with Arizona, Colorado, Iowa, Nebraska, New York and North Carolina — are maintaining their own legal faction.
Utah’s multistate group said it is close to concluding its own investigation into Google’s practices and, should it choose to take legal action, will be looking to consolidate efforts with the Justice Department. If that happens, the broad coalition would mirror the collaborative effort that targeted Microsoft and its strategies to dominate the web browser market some 20 years ago.
“Over the last year, both the DOJ and state attorneys general have conducted separate but parallel investigations into Google’s anti-competitive market behavior,” a statement from the group says. “We appreciate the strong bipartisan cooperation among the states and the good working relationship with the DOJ on these serious issues. This is a historic time for both federal and state antitrust authorities, as we work to protect competition and innovation in our technology markets.
“We plan to conclude parts of our investigation of Google in the coming weeks. If we decide to file a complaint, we would file a motion to consolidate our case with the DOJ’s. We would then litigate the consolidated case cooperatively, much as we did in the Microsoft case.”
Utah Attorney General Sean Reyes praised the move by the feds and hinted that the case the states’ group is working on could include more wide-ranging allegations of misdeeds.
“We applaud (U.S. Attorney General William) Barr and his team of dedicated DOJ lawyers and legal professionals for their work,” Reyes said in a statement. “We support them and understand why they filed sooner than our multistate case. DOJ began its investigations significantly prior to our multistate efforts so it has always been ahead in terms of timing.
“Further, our multistate case may address additional issues beyond the scope of the DOJ complaint.”
Reyes also noted that even though Utah is not part of the lawsuit filed Tuesday, the multistate group has also been working collaboratively with federal investigators.
“We have been working closely with DOJ in our investigation, and we appreciate the cooperation and assistance it has given us,” Reyes said. “We anticipate making a decision regarding our own multistate case in the very near future and look forward to continuing to collaborate closely with the DOJ on this and many other matters.”
Utah assistant attorney general and antitrust specialist David Sonnenreich said Utah, along with Arizona, Colorado, Iowa, Nebraska, New York and North Carolina, are taking the lead on the multistate action that could eventually include dozens of additional states.
Sonnenreich noted the state has an explicit free market clause within the Utah Constitution giving it a more robust statutory mandate to enforce antitrust issues than some other states.
Utah Republican Sen. Mike Lee led a Senate committee grilling of Google executive Donald Harrison last month over antitrust policy and used his allotted questioning period to call out the company for perceived anti-conservative bias.
On Tuesday, Lee celebrated the federal lawsuit targeting the company in a Tweet.
“This morning’s Department of Justice antitrust lawsuit against Google is an encouraging sign in our country’s ongoing battle against the pernicious influence of Big Tech,” Lee wrote. “I am glad that the Department of Justice is taking claims of monopolistic and anticompetitive conduct seriously. Our recent Antitrust Subcommittee hearing on Google’s advertising business revealed its anticompetitive conduct may not be limited to search. I hope the Department will follow the evidence to end monopolistic behavior wherever it finds it.”
The Justice Department filing on Tuesday, alleging Google abused its dominance in online search and advertising to stifle competition and harm consumers, could be an opening salvo ahead of other major government antitrust actions given ongoing investigations of major tech companies including Apple, Amazon and Facebook at both the Justice Department and the Federal Trade Commission.
”Google is the gateway to the internet and a search advertising behemoth,” U.S. Deputy Attorney General Jeff Rosen told reporters. “It has maintained its monopoly power through exclusionary practices that are harmful to competition.”
Antitrust cases in the technology industry have to move quickly, he said. Otherwise “we could lose the next wave of innovation.”
Lawmakers and consumer advocates have long accused Google, whose corporate parent Alphabet Inc. has a market value just over $1 trillion, of abusing its dominance in online search and advertising to stifle competition and boost its profits. Critics contend that multibillion-dollar fines and mandated changes in Google’s practices imposed by European regulators in recent years weren’t severe enough and that structural changes are needed for Google to change its conduct.
The Justice Department isn’t seeking specific changes in Google’s structure or other remedies at this point, but isn’t ruling out seeking additional relief, officials said.
Google responded immediately via tweet: “Today’s lawsuit by the Department of Justice is deeply flawed. People use Google because they choose to — not because they’re forced to or because they can’t find alternatives.”
The case was filed in federal court in Washington, D.C. It alleges that Google uses billions of dollars collected from advertisers to pay phone manufacturers to ensure Google is the default search engine on browsers. Eleven states, all with Republican attorneys general, joined the federal government in the lawsuit.
President Donald Trump’s administration has long had Google in its sights. One of Trump’s top economic advisers said two years ago that the White House was considering whether Google searches should be subject to government regulation. Trump has often criticized Google, recycling claims by conservatives that the search giant is biased against conservatives and suppresses their viewpoints, interferes with U.S. elections and prefers working with the Chinese military over the Pentagon.
Rosen told reporters that allegations of anti-conservative bias are “a totally separate set of concerns” from the issue of competition. Google controls about 90% of global web searches. The company has been bracing for the government’s action and is expected to fiercely oppose any attempt to force it to spin off its services into separate businesses.
The company, based in Mountain View, California, has long denied the claims of unfair competition. Google argues that although its businesses are large, they are useful and beneficial to consumers. It maintains that its services face ample competition and have unleashed innovations that help people manage their lives.Most of Google’s services are offered for free in exchange for personal information that helps it sell its ads. Google insists that it holds no special power forcing people to use its free services or preventing them from going elsewhere.
A recent report from a House Judiciary subcommittee, following a yearlong investigation into Big Tech’s market dominance, concluded that Google has monopoly power in the market for search. It said the company established its position in several markets through acquisition, snapping up successful technologies that other businesses had developed — buying an estimated 260 companies in 20 years.
The Democratic congressman who led that investigation called Tuesday’s action “long overdue” but said it’s important for the Justice Department to look beyond Google’s search business.
“It is critical that the Justice Department’s lawsuit focuses on Google’s monopolization of search and search advertising, while also targeting the anticompetitive business practices Google is using to leverage this monopoly into other areas, such as maps, browsers, video, and voice assistants,” Rep. David Cicilline of Rhode Island said in a statement.
The DOJ “filed the strongest suit they have,” said Columbia Law professor Tim Wu, who called it almost a carbon copy of the government’s 1998 lawsuit against Microsoft.
He said via email that, for that reason, the DOJ has a decent chance of winning. “However, the likely remedies — i.e., knock it off, no more making Google the default — are not particularly likely to transform the broader tech ecosystem.”
Other advocates, however, said the Justice Department’s timing — it’s only two weeks to Election Day — smacks of politics. The government’s “narrow focus and alienation of the bipartisan state attorneys general is evidence of an unserious approach driven by politics and is likely to result in nothing more than a choreographed slap on the wrist for Google,” Alex Harman, a competition policy advocate at Public Citizen, said in a statement.
The argument for reining in Google has gathered force as the company stretched far beyond its 1998 roots as a search engine governed by the motto “Don’t Be Evil.” It’s since grown into a diversified goliath with online tentacles that scoop up personal data from billions of people via services ranging from search, video and maps to smartphone software. That data helps feed the advertising machine that has turned Google into a behemoth.
The company owns the leading web browser in Chrome, the world’s largest smartphone operating system in Android, the top video site in YouTube and the most popular digital mapping system. Some critics have singled out YouTube and Android as among Google businesses that should be considered for divestiture.
With only two weeks to Election Day, the Trump Justice Department is taking bold legal action against Google on an issue of rare bipartisan agreement. Republicans and Democrats have accelerated their criticism of Big Tech in recent months, although sometimes for different reasons. It’s unclear what the status of the government’s suit against Google would be if a Joe Biden administration were to take over next year.