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Google accused of search manipulation in third major antitrust lawsuit

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A breakup isn’t out of the question

Illustration by Alex Castro / The Verge

A coalition of 38 states filed an antitrust lawsuit against Google Thursday focusing on the design of the tech giant’s search engine. It’s the third major antitrust lawsuit filed against the search giant this year.

Colorado’s Democratic Attorney General Phil Weiser and Nebraska’s Republican Attorney General Doug Peterson led the bipartisan group of states’ suit accusing Google of anticompetitive behavior like designing its search engine in a way that leverages the company’s own products over those of its competitors.

“Google sits at the crossroads of so many areas of our digital economy and has used its dominance to illegally squash competitors, monitor nearly every aspect of our digital lives, and profit to the tune of billions,” New York Democratic Attorney General Letitia James said in a statement Thursday.

According to a press release from the New York attorney general’s office, the states are asking the court to stop Google’s illegal conduct and “restore a competitive marketplace.” They are also seeking to “counter any advantages that Google gained as a result of its anticompetitive conduct,” including possible divestitures.

In a blog post Thursday, Google’s director of economic policy Adam Cohen responded to the lawsuit. “We know that scrutiny of big companies is important and we’re prepared to answer questions and work through the issues,” Cohen said. “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. We look forward to making that case in court, while remaining focused on delivering a high-quality search experience for our users.”

The states’ lawsuit specifically takes aim at Google’s market power and ability to push specific sites and services out of its search results. “Google sells advertisements to some specialized vertical providers, but, depending on the commercial segment involved, unnecessarily limits their utility,” the lawsuit says. “And by virtue of its monopoly power, Google extracts from some specialized vertical providers massive amounts of proprietary customer data that Google can them use to compete against them.”

Thursday’s lawsuit is just the latest in a stream of court challenges for Google. On Wednesday, Texas’ state attorney general announced new antitrust charges against the search giant. However, the Texas-led lawsuit focused on Google’s ad tech practices, primarily taking issue with the company’s requirements for publishers. The Justice Department also filed its own suit in October, along with 11 Republican state attorneys general, focusing on Google’s exclusive contracts with Android smartphone manufacturers and Apple to set its own search engine as the default option on these devices.

Shortly after the DOJ filed its Android case this fall, Kent Walker, Google’s senior vice president of global affairs, said that Google planned to contest the suit.

“People use Google because they choose to, not because they’re forced to, or because they can’t find alternatives,” Walker said at the time. “This lawsuit would do nothing to help consumers.”

In 2019, the Justice Department announced a broad antitrust investigation into the tech industry, including companies like Amazon, Apple, Facebook, and Google. In the months following this announcement, the DOJ has worked alongside states to build cases on some of these companies. Last week, the Federal Trade Commission and dozens of states filed separate suits looking to break up Facebook, unwinding the social media company’s acquisitions of Instagram and WhatsApp.

Updated 12/17/20 at 2:45PM ET: Added a statement from Google.