|Two new suits filed against Google by state attorneys general. If the content detailed isn’t illegal behavior, get ready for even more shocking conduct from technology companies to stymie competitors and extract the maximum of any and all rents.|
Last month, two new suits were filed against Google, arguing that the company’s dominance in the search engine and online advertising markets. One suit is led by Colorado’s attorney general and the other by Texas’ attorney general. The two suits have overlapping but different foci, and it is possible these new suits get folded into the suit against Google filed by the United States (U.S.) Department of Justice (DOJ). There are also media reports that some of the states that brought these suits may be preparing yet another antitrust action against Google over allegedly anti-monopolistic behavior in how it operates its Google Play app store.
Colorado Attorney General Phil Phil Weiser and 38 other state attorneys general filed their antitrust suit in the District Court of the District of Columbia “under Section 2 of the Sherman Act, 15 U.S.C. § 2, to restrain Google from unlawfully restraining trade and maintaining monopolies in markets that include general search services, general search text advertising, and general search advertising in the United States, and to remedy the effects of this conduct.” They are asking the court for a range of relief, including but not limited to permanent injunctions to stop ongoing and future anti-competitive conduct and a ;possible breakup of the company.
Weiser and his counterparts framed their argument this way:
Google, one of the largest companies in the world, has methodically undertaken actions to entrench and reinforce its general search services and search-related advertising monopolies by stifling competition. As the gateway to the internet, Google has systematically degraded the ability of other companies to access consumers. In doing so, just as Microsoft improperly maintained its monopoly through conduct directed at Netscape, Google has improperly maintained and extended its search-related monopolies through exclusionary conduct that has harmed consumers, advertisers, and the competitive process itself. Google, moreover, cannot establish business justifications or procompetitive benefits sufficient to justify its exclusionary conduct in any relevant market.
They summed up their legal argument of three forms of anticompetitive conduct of Google:
- First, Google uses its massive financial resources to limit the number of consumers who use a Google competitor. For example, according to public estimates Google pays Apple between $8 and $12 billion per year to ensure that Google is enthroned as the default search engine on Apple devices, and it limits general search competition on Android devices with a web of restrictive contracts. Google pursues similar strategies with other devices, such as voice assistants and internet-connected cars.
- Second, Google’s Search Ads 360 (“SA360”) service, a search advertising marketing tool used by many of the world’s most sophisticated advertisers, has long pledged to offer advertisers a “neutral” means for purchasing and comparing the performance of not only Google’s search advertising, but also that of its closest competitors. But, in reality, Google operates SA360—the single largest such tool used by advertisers—to severely limit the tool’s interoperability with a competitor, thereby disadvantaging SA360 advertisers.
- Third, Google throttles consumers from bypassing its general search engine and going directly to their chosen destination, especially when those destinations threaten Google’s monopoly power. Google acknowledges its [REDACTED] because of the proliferation of services offered by specialized vertical providers. Specialized vertical providers, like an online travel agency who offer consumers the ability to complete a transaction then and there, do not compete in Google’s search-related markets. Nevertheless, they pose a threat to Google’s monopoly power in those markets because their success would both strengthen general search rivals with whom they partner and lower the artificially high barriers to expansion and entry that protect Google’s monopolies.
In summary, Weiser and his colleagues argued:
- Google has willfully maintained, abused, and extended its monopoly power in general search services through (a) anticompetitive and exclusionary distribution agreements that lock up the present default positions for search access points on browsers, mobile devices, computers, and other devices as well as emerging device technology; require preinstallation and prominent placement of Google’s apps; and tie Google’s search access points to Google Play and Google APIs; (b) operation of SA360 to limit the tool’s interoperability with a competitor, disadvantaging SA360 advertisers; (c) discriminatory treatment towards specialized vertical providers in certain commercial segments that hinders consumers’ ability to find responsive information; and (d) other restrictions that drive queries to Google at the expense of search rivals.
- Google has willfully maintained, abused, and extended its monopoly power in general search advertising through (a) anticompetitive and exclusionary distribution agreements that lock up the present default positions for search access points on browsers, mobile devices, computers, and other devices as well as emerging device technology; require preinstallation and prominent placement of Google’s apps; and tie Google’s search access points to Google Play and Google APIs; (b) operation of SA360 to limit the tool’s interoperability with a competitor, disadvantaging SA360 advertisers; (c) discriminatory treatment towards specialized vertical providers in certain commercial segments that hinders consumers’ ability to find responsive information; and (d) other restrictions that drive queries to Google at the expense of search rivals.
- Google has willfully maintained, abused, and extended its monopoly power in general search text advertising through (a) anticompetitive and exclusionary distribution agreements that lock up the present default positions for search access points on browsers, mobile devices, computers, and other devices as well as emerging device technology; require preinstallation and prominent placement of Google’s apps; and tie Google’s search access points to Google Play and Google APIs; (b) operation of SA360 to limit the tool’s interoperability with a competitor, disadvantaging SA360 advertisers; (c) discriminatory treatment towards specialized vertical providers in certain commercial segments that hinders consumers’ ability to find responsive information; and (d) other restrictions that drive queries to Google at the expense of search rivals.
Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton and nine other attorneys general filed their antitrust action in the Eastern District of Texas and dropped a bomb: they allege Google and Facebook conspired to monopolize the online advertising market after publishers have devised a system to blunt Google’s dominance. However, Paxton and his colleagues argue that Google’s illegal actions have essentially taxed Americans through higher prices and lower quality products and services because companies are forced to pay a premium to Google to advertise online.
Paxton and the attorneys general summarized their suit and the relief they think appropriate in light of Google’s conduct:
As a result of Google’s anticompetitive conduct, including its unlawful agreement with Facebook, Google has violated and continues to violate Sections 1 and 2 of the Sherman Act, 15 U.S.C. §§ 1, 2. Plaintiff States bring this action to remove the veil of Google’s secret practices and end Google’s abuse of its monopoly power in online advertising markets. Plaintiff States seek to restore free and fair competition to these markets and to secure structural, behavioral, and monetary relief to prevent Google from ever again engaging in deceptive trade practices and abusing its monopoly power to foreclose competition and harm consumers.
They summed up the harm they think Google has wrought:
Plaintiff States have sustained antitrust injury as a direct and proximate cause of Google’s unlawful conduct, in at least the following ways: (1) substantially foreclosing competition in the market for publisher ad servers, and using market power in the publisher ad server market to harm competition in the exchange market; (2) substantially foreclosing competition in the exchange market by denying rivals’ access to publisher inventory and to advertiser demand; (3) substantially foreclosing competition in the market for demand-side buying tools by creating information asymmetry and unfair auctions by virtue of Google’s market dominance in the publisher ad serving tools and exchange markets; (4) increasing barriers to entry and competition in publisher ad server, exchange, and demand-side buying tools markets; (5) harming innovation, which would otherwise benefit publishers, advertisers and competitors; (6) harming publishers’ ability to effectively monetize their content, reducing publishers’ revenues, and thereby reducing output and harming consumers; (7) reducing advertiser demand and participation in the market by maintaining opacity on margins and selling process, harming rival exchanges and buying tools; (8) increasing advertisers’ costs to advertise and reducing the effectiveness of their advertising, and thereby harming businesses’ return on the investment in delivering their products and services, reducing output, and harming consumers; (9) protecting Google’s products from competitive pressures, thereby allowing it to continue to extract high margins while shielded from significant pressure to innovate.
With regard to another possible antitrust action against Google, the suit Epic Games brought against the tech giant for taking 30% of in-app purchases as a condition of being allowed in the Play Store may shed light on what such a suit may look like. In August Epic Games filed a suit against Google on substantially the same grounds as it is bringing against Apple. Google acted after Apple did to remove Fortnite from its Play Store once Epic Games started offering users a discounted price to buy directly from them as opposed to through Google. Epic asserted:
- Epic brings claims under Sections 1 and 2 of the Sherman Act and under California law to end Google’s unlawful monopolization and anti-competitive restraints in two separate markets: (1) the market for the distribution of mobile apps to Android users and (2) the market for processing payments for digital content within Android mobile apps. Epic seeks to end Google’s unfair, monopolistic and anti-competitive actions in each of these markets, which harm device makers, app developers, app distributors, payment processors, and consumers.
- Epic does not seek monetary compensation from this Court for the injuries it has suffered. Epic likewise does not seek a side deal or favorable treatment from Google for itself. Instead, Epic seeks injunctive relief that would deliver Google’s broken promise: an open, competitive Android ecosystem for all users and industry participants. Such injunctive relief is sorely needed.
- Google has eliminated competition in the distribution of Android apps using myriad contractual and technical barriers. Google’s actions force app developers and consumers into Google’s own monopolized “app store”—the Google Play Store. Google has thus installed itself as an unavoidable middleman for app developers who wish to reach Android users and vice versa. Google uses this monopoly power to impose a tax that siphons monopoly profits for itself every time an app developer transacts with a consumer for the sale of an app or in-app digital content. And Google further siphons off all user data exchanged in such transactions, to benefit its own app designs and advertising business.
- If not for Google’s anti-competitive behavior, the Android ecosystem could live up to Google’s promise of open competition, providing Android users and developers with competing app stores that offer more innovation, significantly lower prices and a choice of payment processors. Such an open system is not hard to imagine. Two decades ago, through the actions of courts and regulators, Microsoft was forced to open up the Windows for PC ecosystem. As a result, PC users have multiple options for downloading software unto their computers, either directly from developers’ websites or from several competing stores. No single entity controls the ecosystem or imposes a tax on all transactions. And Google, as the developer of software such as the Chrome browser, is a direct beneficiary of this competitive landscape. Android users and developers likewise deserve free and fair competition.
In late October, the DOJ and a number of states filed a long awaited antitrust suit against Google that has been rumored to be coming since late summer 2020. This anti-trust action centers on Google’s practices of making Google the default search engine on Android devices and paying browsers and other technology entities to make Google the default search engine. The DOJ and eleven state attorneys general are following in the footsteps of the European Union’s (EU) €4.34 billion fine of Google in 2018 for imposing “illegal restrictions on Android device manufacturers and mobile network operators to cement its dominant position in general internet search.” The European Commission (EC or Commission) claimed the offending behavior included:
- has required manufacturers to pre-install the Google Search app and browser app (Chrome), as a condition for licensing Google’s app store (the Play Store);
- made payments to certain large manufacturers and mobile network operators on condition that they exclusively pre-installed the Google Search app on their devices; and
- has prevented manufacturers wishing to pre-install Google apps from selling even a single smart mobile device running on alternative versions of Android that were not approved by Google (so-called “Android forks”).
The EC said its “decision concludes that Google is dominant in the markets for general internet search services, licensable smart mobile operating systems and app stores for the Android mobile operating system.”
And, of course, this is only the latest anti-trust case Google has faced in the EU with the €2.42 billion fine in June 2017 “for abusing its dominance as a search engine by giving an illegal advantage to Google’s own comparison shopping service.”
Google’s antitrust and anticompetitive issues are not confined to the United States and the EU. In 2019, the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC) announced a legal action against Google “alleging they engaged in misleading conduct and made false or misleading representations to consumers about the personal location data Google collects, keeps and uses” according to the agency’s press release. In its initial filing, the ACCC is claiming that Google mislead and deceived the public in contravention of the Australian Competition Law and Android users were harmed because those that switched off Location Services were unaware that their location information was still be collected and used by Google for it was not readily apparent that Web & App Activity also needed to be switched off.
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 The following states are parties to the suit: Colorado, Nebraska, Arizona, Iowa, New York, North Carolina, Tennessee, Utah, Alaska, Connecticut, Delaware, Hawaii, Idaho, Illinois, Kansas, Maine, Maryland, Minnesota, Nevada, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New Mexico, North Dakota, Ohio, Oklahoma, Oregon, Rhode Island, South Dakota, Vermont, Washington, West Virginia, and Wyoming; the Commonwealths of Massachusetts, Pennsylvania, Puerto Rico, and Virginia; the Territory of Guam; and the District of Columbia.
 These states sued Google: Texas, Arkansas Idaho, Indiana, Mississippi, Missouri, North Dakota, South Dakota, Utah, and the Commonwealth of Kentucky.