Dozens Of State AGs Preparing Concerted Google Antitrust Probe: Report

More than half the U.S. states could soon launch antitrust investigations into Google's business practices, likely in coordination with federal regulators from the U.S. Justice Departments antitrust division


Google, already bracing for a new probe from U.S. regulators, will likely soon also have to contend with dozens of individual states scrutinizing possible antitrust violations, according to a report published Tuesday by The Washington Post.

The attorneys general in more than half the 50 U.S. states will steer their offices toward investigating the Internet giant's business practices in accordance with their states' antitrust laws, likely working in conjunction with the U.S. Department of Justice.

Those investigations could be announced at a news conference on Sept. 9 in the nation's capital, Washington D.C., by a handful of such state officials, the newspaper reports, citing three people "familiar with the matter" not authorized to talk publicly.

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[Related: EU Hits Google Again With $1.69 Billion Antitrust Fine Over Advertising Practices]

Federal officials have not commented on whether they would join their state counterparts at any coming event, but Makan Relrahmi, the U.S. assistant attorney general who heads the Justice Department's Antitrust Division, said last month his office is coordinating investigatory efforts with more than a dozen states.

In May, The Wall Street Journal, also citing anonymous sources, reported that the Justice Department's antitrust arm was preparing to examine Google's practices related to search and "other businesses" within the Mountain View, Calif.-based internet giant.

Those sources told the Journal that the Federal Trade Commission and the Justice Department had recently held talks coordinating which agency would oversee the Google probe, and the commission ceded control to the DOJ.

During his nomination hearings in January, Attorney General William Barr told senators, without prompting, that he's interested in exploring the idea of scrutinizing big tech companies for antitrust violations.

"I think a lot of people wonder how such huge behemoths that now exist in Silicon Valley have taken shape under the nose of the antitrust enforcers," Barr said.

Google made it through an antitrust probe conducted in 2012 by the FTC without incurring any punitive fines.

At the time, FTC regulators argued that following its acquisition of Motorola, Google sought or threatened injunctions against competitors' products through the International Trade Commission, despite prior promises from Motorola to license relevant patents. A settlement reached at the start of 2013 required Google to meet prior commitments to license key patents under fair, non-discriminatory terms.

In August of 2018, Orrin Hatch, at the time a Republican senator from Utah, wrote the FTC urging regulators to investigate potential anti-competitive practices in Google's search and digital advertising businesses.

Hatch, then chairman of the Senate Finance Committee who has since retired from politics, said Google once placed restrictions on publishers' displaying search advertisements from its competitors, but loosened some of those restrictions when faced by the FTC and European Commission complaints.

Any new federal or state probes add to a series of investigations and regulatory actions that Google is grappling with from the European Commission, the European Union’s regulatory watchdog.

Google was hit with a massive $5.05 billion fine from the European Union in July of 2018. The company violated antitrust rules by imposing "illegal restrictions" on Android device makers and mobile network operators, allegedly aimed at bolstering Google's search engine, the EU concluded in a decision that's been appealed.

A few months later, in October of 2018, Delrahim told a Senate committee he couldn't rule out the possibility of an inquiry into Google's Android business, according to a report in the New York Post.

Earlier this summer, the Office of the Data Protection Commissioner, an Irish regulatory body that serves as the European Union's watchdog for upholding personal data protections, said it would examine whether Google Ad Exchange tracked users or stored data in violation of the GDPR law that went into effect one year ago.

The European Union’s antitrust chief, Margrethe Vestager, wouldn’t rule out European regulators breaking up Google, in comments she made in March of 2018.

“Google's services help people every day, create more choice for consumers, and support thousands of jobs and small businesses across the country,” a Google spokesperson said in a statement. “We continue to work constructively with regulators, including attorneys general, in answering questions about our business and the dynamic technology sector.”