Google hit with another antitrust lawsuit by states

A bipartisan group of state attorneys general filed another antitrust lawsuit against Google on Thursday focused on its online search market power, adding to the growing legal battles facing the tech giant.

The lawsuit — filed by 35 states and Washington, D.C., Guam and Puerto Rico — alleges Google illegally maintains monopoly power over search engines and search advertising markets through a series of anticompetitive contracts and conduct.

“Our economy is more concentrated than ever, and consumers are squeezed when they are deprived of choices in valued products and services,” Colorado Attorney General Phil Weiser (D) said in a statement. “Google’s anticompetitive actions have protected its general search monopolies and excluded rivals, depriving consumers of the benefits of competitive choices, forestalling innovation, and undermining new entry or expansion.”

Weiser was joined by Iowa Attorney General Tom Miller (D), Nebraska Attorney General Doug Peterson (R) and Tennessee Attorney General Herbert Slatery (R) at a press conference announcing the lawsuit.

The states are asking the court to unwind any advantages Google gained as a result of anticompetitive behavior, including calling for the divestiture of assets as appropriate.

Google defended its search engine in a lengthy statement Thursday, arguing that being forced to revert changes would harm the quality of results and ultimately small businesses.

“We know that scrutiny of big companies is important and we’re prepared to answer questions and work through the issues,” Adam Cohen, director of economic policy at Google, wrote in a blog post. “But this lawsuit seeks to redesign Search in ways that would deprive Americans of helpful information and hurt businesses’ ability to connect directly with customers.”

The bipartisan effort comes just one day after 10 Republican state attorneys general filed a separate lawsuit against Google in federal court in Texas, accusing the search giant of illegally stifling competition in the advertising technology market.

Google was also sued earlier this year by the Justice Department over its search policies. Eleven states, all with GOP attorneys general, joined the lawsuit at the time. California Attorney General Xavier Becerra last week became the first Democrat to ask to join the Justice Department’s case.

The lawsuit led by Colorado, Iowa, Nebraska and Tennessee was filed Thursday in the same federal court in D.C. as the Justice Department case, allowing the two to potentially be consolidated. The judge in the federal government’s case, Amit Mehta, has scheduled a hearing for Friday to discuss future proceedings.

Weiser said the attorneys general in the latest suit sought to file their own complaint separate from the DOJ because the department’s lawsuit didn’t touch on certain aspects that the attorneys general saw as crucial.

For example, he pointed to connected cars with voice assistants and other platforms that use underlying search engine technology, accusing Google of using exclusionary tactics to deprive consumers of choice. 

“That to our mind was warranting attention that the DOJ lawsuit did not give,” Weiser said.

Still, Weiser said the states are asking for their case to be consolidated with the Justice Department case because both suits are fundamentally focused on Google’s search market power. 

Michigan and Wisconsin, which both have Democratic attorneys general, asked to join the DOJ case Thursday shortly after the bipartisan coalition of 38 attorneys general filed their separate lawsuit.

Miller, one of the attorneys general who appeared Thursday, called the Texas-led effort filed a day before “a very much distinct and important individual complaint.” The lawsuit filed Wednesday focussed on the advertising technology market.

“I plan to watch it, and certainly respect my colleagues that are working in this area,” Miller said.

Between both state-led lawsuits, and the states joining the DOJ case, every state except Alabama has joined a legal effort targeting Google.

The case filed Thursday builds on the DOJ’s argument by mapping out how Google entered into contracts with new ways that users might conduct searches, such as through smart home devices.

It also argues that Google’s massive trove of data has created barriers to entry for potential competitors, ultimately hurting consumer options.

The complaint accuses Google of discriminating against vertical search engines, or platforms that specialize in one area, like Yelp for restaurants or Expedia for travel.

Vertical search engines across the board have experienced a drop in traffic in recent years as Google has changed its search landing page to include more features.

Prosecutors argued in Thursday’s suit that such a drop is a result of Google methodically downplaying vertical search engines in results while boosting their own competing review services.

Richard Stables, CEO of price comparison search engine Kelkoo, hailed the latest lawsuit, saying it “demonstrates the bipartisan scrutiny of the dangerous anti-competitive behavior that is limiting competition and consumer choice in the online marketplace.”

“We are optimistic this multi-pronged approach at state and federal levels will finally force Google to operate on a level playing field and pull back its overwhelming dominance in advertising and search,” he added.

Luther Lowe, the senior vice president of public policy at Yelp, which has also criticized Google’s dominance in the space, said that the focus on search results in Thursday’s suit “is arguably more significant than previous lawsuits in that it strikes at the foundation of Google’s dominance.”

The suit argues that rival search engines could create better products with lower prices for advertisers if not for Google’s search monopoly.

The Colorado attorney general said it is too early to be specific on what remedies the attorneys general are seeking from the court, but the broad goal is to restore competition in the marketplace. 

Updated: 2:35 p.m.

Tags antitrust lawsuit Google Xavier Becerra

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