Google faces its third major antitrust lawsuit as Texas and other states take the company to court over its ad practices

Google's CEO Sundar Pichai
Google’s CEO Sundar Pichai

A group of state attorneys general filed a lawsuit against Google on Wednesday accusing it of engaging in anticompetitive behavior by abusing its dominance in online ad sales.

“The state of Texas is filing a multistate lawsuit against Google for anticompetitive conduct, exclusionary practices, and deceptive misrepresentations,” Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton said in a Facebook post on Wednesday announcing the suit. “Google repeatedly used its monopolistic powers to control pricing” and “engage in market collusions to rig [ad] auctions.”

The lawsuit is the first to focus on Google’s control over the real-time auctions that determine how much advertisers pay to reach consumers, and is separate from two additional antitrust cases being brought against the company.

In a statement to Business Insider, a Google spokesperson called Paxton’s ad tech claims “meritless,” and accused him of pushing ahead “in spite of all the facts.”

“We’ve invested in state-of-the-art ad tech services that help businesses and benefit consumers. Digital ad prices have fallen over the last decade. Ad tech fees are falling too. Google’s ad tech fees are lower than the industry average. These are the hallmarks of a highly competitive industry. We will strongly defend ourselves from his baseless claims in court,” the Google spokesperson said.

In October, the US Department of Justice filed a lawsuit against Google, accusing it of using a network of illegal, exclusionary business deals to disadvantage smaller competitors and build an unfair advantage in search and online advertising. Several states including California have since joined that case.

On Tuesday, Politico reported that another bipartisan group of state attorneys general – led by Colorado and Nebraska – plan to file a complaint against Google as early as Thursday, according to Politico. That lawsuit is expected to accuse the company of unfairly modifying its search engine to boost results for its own products while disadvantaging results for competitors.

The lawsuit Texas filed Wednesday stems from an investigation launched in September 2019 that state attorneys general from 48 states, Washington, DC, and Puerto Rico joined.

Federal and state regulators have grown increasingly aggressive in probing major tech companies over potential monopolistic behavior, and in recent months have filed major lawsuits that could have huge impacts on those businesses as well as their users, customers, and competitors.

Last week, Facebook was hit with two massive antitrust lawsuits  – one from the Federal Trade Commission and one from a group of 46 states – both seeking to spin off Instagram and WhatsApp from the social media company.

European regulators, which have long been ahead of their US counterparts in taking on tech companies over antitrust concerns, have also filed lawsuits, opened investigations, and issued fines this year against tech giants including AmazonApple, and Facebook

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Google is reportedly about to get hit this week with a second major antitrust lawsuit – this time from states accusing the company of designing its search engine to hurt rivals

Sundar Pichai speaks during the presentation of new Google hardware in San Francisco
CEO Sundar Pichai speaks during the presentation of new Google hardware in San Francisco.

  • A bipartisan group of state attorneys general is planning to file an antitrust lawsuit against Google this week, Politico reported on Tuesday evening.
  • The suit is expected to accuse Google of designing its search engine to favor its own specialized search products over the specialized search tools of competitors, according to Politico.
  • This latest legal challenge follows a recent spree of antitrust cases brought against tech giants, including a lawsuit brought against Google by the DOJ in October.
  • Visit Business Insider’s homepage for more stories.

Google will soon be facing another federal antitrust lawsuit, this time over the design of its search engine, Politico reported Tuesday.

A bipartisan group of state attorneys general – led by Colorado’s Democratic Attorney General Phil Weiser, and Nebraska’s Republican Attorney General Doug Peterson – plan to file a complaint against Google as early as Thursday, according to Politico.

The states’ complaint is expected to accuse Google of anti-competitive behavior by modifying its search engine to boost results for its own products while disadvantaging results for competitors that provide specialized search results, Politico reported.

A Google spokesperson declined to comment on the planned lawsuit.

Consumers often begin their decisions about where to shop online, look for jobs, book travel accommodations, and make dining plans with a Google search. From there, they could end up visiting sites like Amazon and Etsy, LinkedIn and Monster.com, TripAdvisor and Airbnb, or Yelp and OpenTable – or Google’s own products, such as: Google Shopping, Google Careers, Google Flights, and Google Maps.

Many competing search result providers have argued that Google unfairly leverages control over its search engine to give its own specialized search products premium placement, steering users away from its competitors or forcing them to pay Google for ads in order to secure prime real estate.

The planned lawsuit stems from an investigation launched in September 2019 by attorneys general from 48 states, Washington, DC, and Puerto Rico. 

It also comes on the heels of another major antitrust case filed against Google by the Department of Justice in October and joined by 12 states (California joined earlier this month).

That lawsuit argued that Google uses a network of illegal, exclusionary business deals that disadvantage smaller competitors, building an unfair advantage in search and online advertising, marking the largest legal challenge Google has faced and is likely to result in a court fight that could last years.

In a blog post, Google’s Senior Vice President of Global Affairs, Kent Walker, called the lawsuit “deeply flawed.”

Politico reported that some states from the DOJ’s case may also sign onto the forthcoming lawsuit because it focuses on a different aspect of Google’s search dominance.

Read more: 7 lawyers helping Google fight landmark antitrust charges in a battle that could stretch on for years, from in-house pros to DOJ veterans

Federal and state regulators have grown increasingly aggressive in probing major tech companies over potential monopolistic behavior, and in recent months have filed major lawsuits that could have huge impacts on those businesses as well as their users, customers, and competitors.

Last week, Facebook was hit with two massive antitrust lawsuits  – one from the Federal Trade Commission and one from a group of 46 states – both seeking to spin off Instagram and WhatsApp from the social media company.

European regulators, which have long been ahead of their US counterparts in taking on tech companies over antitrust concerns, have also filed lawsuits, opened investigations, and issued fines this year against tech giants including Amazon, Apple, and Facebook

Read the original article on Business Insider

Experts say the antitrust suits against Facebook may not change anything, but they’re still a ‘big deal’ and signal that the US government will no longer look the other way

mark zuckerberg facebook
Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg in Washington DC on Oct. 23, 2019.

  • Facebook was slammed with two antitrust lawsuits this week — one from the FTC and one from a group of 48 attorneys general — that take aim at the company’s practices of stifling market competition.
  • They also seek to force Facebook’s spin-off of WhatsApp and Instagram, but experts told Business Insider that that’s unlikely to happen, and the suits will likely stretch out for years.
  • What the lawsuits really represent, experts said, is an indication that the government will no longer look the other way when it comes to how Facebook operates.
  • “Every acquisition they try to make from here on will be met with such a level of inspection and skepticism associated with it,” one expert told Business Insider.
  • The lawsuits are the cherry on top of a rocky few months for Facebook as a reckoning in tech looks to be on the horizon.
  • Congress has been investigating Facebook over antitrust concerns, the public has accused the company of allowing the spread of misinformation and hate speech, and Republicans are convinced that the platform is one of many that discriminates against the right.
  • Here’s what the lawsuits mean for Facebook and what they could change.
  • Visit Business Insider’s homepage for more stories.

What happened this week?

The Federal Trade Commission has been in charge of enforcing antitrust laws for decades, and the federal agency filed a lawsuit on Wednesday that seeks to force Facebook to spin off Instagram and WhatsApp. 

Why? Because the commission alleges that when Facebook acquired the two companies, it did so to neutralize them as competitors. As Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg said in a 2008 email, unearthed for the first time in the FTC’s lawsuit, “it is better to buy than compete.”

That would be illegal, according to US antitrust laws. (This also isn’t a new accusation – Zuckerberg faced questioning over the same topic in front of Congress in July as part of its investigation into online competition.)

Antitrust laws are designed to prevent firms from using anticompetitive business practices that stifle competition, thereby allowing the companies to dominate the market and hold monopoly power.

The FTC lawsuit accuses Facebook of holding such an “illegal monopolization.” 

In addition to the divestitures, the filings are also seeking to keep Facebook from engaging in anticompetitive conduct. Such conduct could include Facebook preventing competing services from gaining access to its customer base, David Dinielli – an antitrust lawyer and a former special counsel with the antitrust division of the Department of Justice – told Business Insider. The ultimate goal, he said, is to restore competition in the market.

“This is the incredibly strong opening salvo of what could be a multi-year battle,” Dinielli said.

Why is the FTC lawsuit a big deal?

The lawsuit represents a major legal action taken by the US government against Facebook. It also coincides with a separate lawsuit filed by 48 attorneys general that includes similar allegations. 

Dinielli also said an important fact about these filings is that they aren’t political documents but are rather explanations that anyone, regardless of political affiliation, will understand. Regulation of the tech industry has been largely politicized this year, especially as platforms like Facebook began fact-checking President Donald Trump’s online posts.

The suit’s demands that WhatsApp and Instagram be spun off are notable.

Divesting WhatsApp could have a dire impact on the future of the social media company, as Bloomberg’s Kurt Wagner reported. Facebook bet big bucks on the popular mobile messaging platform, and as those types of services continue to veer into the social networking world, a company like WhatsApp will be an invaluable asset. Zuckerberg and Facebook leadership recognized as much, according to internal emails made public as part of the FTC lawsuit. 

Facebook also recognized Instagram as a formidable challenger before it acquired the platform – Zuckerberg wrote in 2012 that it would be “really scary” for Facebook if Instagram remained a standalone competitor.

“It’s kind of ridiculous in and of itself that they bought Instagram in 2012 and now, eight years later, [regulators are] saying, ‘Oh, you shouldn’t have done that,'” Ari Lightman, professor of digital media at Carnegie Mellon and social media expert, told Business Insider.

But that doesn’t mean that investigators will get their way with a WhatsApp-Instagram spin-off. 

Will anything change because of the lawsuit?

Experts say, not really.

Wall Street analysts told Business Insider’s Martin Coulter that the lawsuit might not actually have legs to hold up in court, and a spinoff of Instagram and WhatsApp is unlikely to happen, Lightman said.

“If you break them up now, are you going to give them a refund check?” Lightman said. There are so many integrated assets, from engineers and executives to user data, so the question is how does that even begin to be unraveled, according to Lightman.

Experts said what the lawsuit really represents is being part of a series of governmental actions signaling the broader consensus that the industry needs oversight.

“It’s time to take all of these companies seriously, both in terms of the incredible benefits they’ve provided to our economy, to the marketplace of ideas and to our personal lives, but also the problems that they pose for those same things,” Dinielli said.

And Lightman said “every acquisition they try to make from here on will be met with such a level of inspection and skepticism associated with it.” What Facebook needs is better legislation that applies to them specifically as internet platforms, according to Lightman.

He also said Facebook will spend “a lot of money, a lot of resources, a lot of time, a lot of energy fighting this thing,” leaving the door open for other competitors to catch up with their own innovations.

The lawsuits come after a tumultuous year for Facebook

Both the FTC’s suit and that filed by 48 attorneys general come on the heels of a rocky few months for Facebook, as a reckoning in tech looks to be on the horizon.

Antitrust scrutiny, accusations surrounding the proliferation of misinformation and hate speech on its platform, election interference, a vendetta against Republicans – it has not been smooth sailing for Facebook this year. Though its problems, of course, stretch back years, when the Cambridge Analytica scandal really kicked off a “techlash” against the company and its industry. 

The House antitrust subcommittee has investigated Facebook, the Senate judiciary subcommittee is mulling over tweaking Section 230 protections, and a greater public discourse around tech regulation has taken hold as online consumers become more aware of the platforms they use every day.

“Running unregulated, unchecked, unsupervised – it’s great for growth in the early days, but now it doesn’t fit the model, and trying to use a blunt hammer, which is 120-year-old piece of legislation, is the wrong answer as well,” Lightman said.

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