Oct 20, 2020 - Technology

Justice Department sues Google over alleged search monopoly

Google logo in a spotlight.

Illustration: Lazaro Gamio/Axios

The Justice Department and 11 states Tuesday filed an antitrust lawsuit against Google, accusing the company of using anticompetitive tactics to illegally monopolize the online search and search advertising markets.

Why it matters: The long-awaited suit is Washington's first major blow against the tech giants that many on both the right and left argue have grown too large and powerful. Still, this is just step one in what could be a lengthy and messy court battle.

Details: Google has unfairly dominated the search market by locking in its search engine as the default in browsers and on mobile devices including Apple iPhones and phones that run Google's own Android operating system, DOJ argues in the suit, filed in the D.C. Circuit Court.

  • Google's use of its own properties and what DOJ charges are exclusionary contracts with other companies have "foreclosed competition for internet search," the agency says in the suit.
  • That in turn has thwarted rivals from effectively competing against Google in search advertising, DOJ contends.

What they're saying: Google's conduct in search is "illegal under traditional antitrust principles and must be stopped," DOJ attorney Ryan Shores said on the press call.

  • "Consumers and advertisers suffer from less choice, less innovation and less competitive advertising prices," Shores said.

What's next: DOJ is asking the court to rule that Google's conduct is indeed illegal and to stop it from engaging in it again.

  • The agency also wants the court to bring "structural relief as needed to cure any anticompetitive harm."

Between the lines: That could mean going as far as seeking to force Google to split off its search and/or advertising businesses.

  • DOJ doesn't say what sort of structural remedies it's seeking, and officials declined to get more specific on a call with reporters Tuesday.
  • “Nothing is off the table, but the question of remedies is best addressed by the court after it’s had a chance to hear all the evidence," Shores told reporters.

What they're not saying: The suit doesn't try to make the case that Google has engaged in anti-competitive behavior in the broader online advertising and advertising technology markets. Tech critics including some high-profile progressives have argued that Google is also breaking antitrust laws in those sectors.

  • Officials on the call left open the possibility that DOJ may sue Google on other aspects of its business and said their ongoing review of the tech industry continues.

The other side: Google has long maintained its might in search is a natural result of developing a solid product and has denied engaging in anti-competitive tactics. The company also contends it faces healthy competition in its major revenue-generating business lines including advertising and mobile.

  • "Today's lawsuit by the Department of Justice is deeply flawed," a Google spokesperson said. "People use Google because they choose to — not because they’re forced to or because they can’t find alternatives."

Of note: The 11 state AGs joining DOJ on the suit are all Republicans. It's a far smaller group than the broad bipartisan coalition of AGs that has been probing Google for potential antitrust abuses.

  • DOJ officials said they expect other states to act on their own.

The big picture: Antitrust lawsuits move slowly — the last time the DOJ sued a tech giant, when it went after Microsoft beginning in 1997, the process took 5 years. An earlier antitrust suit against IBM in the 1970s took 13.

Read the lawsuit.

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