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5 key things to know about the Google antitrust lawsuit

October 20, 2020, 5:17 PM UTC

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After years of complaints by rivals, Google found itself on the receiving end of an antitrust lawsuit from the Department of Justice and 11 state attorneys general on Tuesday. The 64-page document, filed in federal court in Washington, D.C., accuses Google of improperly using its monopoly for Internet search to squash competition and harm consumers. Here are five things you need to know about the Google antitrust lawsuit.

Why is Google being sued?

Google has dominated Internet search for so long that the company’s name has become a synonym for the act of searching. According to the lawsuit, U.S. consumers turned to Google for their search queries almost 90% of the time and almost 95% on mobile devices. Microsoft’s Bing, Yahoo, DuckDuckGo, and other rivals have seen their share shrink away over the past decade, the lawsuit says. As a result, Google collects more than 70% of the dollars spent on search advertising.

But just having a monopoly isn’t against the law. Antitrust regulators say Google both built that dominant place by illegal means and has extended it improperly by using exclusionary agreements, as well. For example, Google pays huge fees to be the default search service with phone makers like Apple and Samsung; wireless networks including AT&T and T-Mobile; and browser developers like Mozilla and Opera, the lawsuit says. In some cases, the deals prohibit offering rival search services, the lawsuit adds (though without naming names). Google also used its control over its Android operating system to extend its search dominance to mobile, the lawsuit says, by requiring phone makers to include its apps and services.

Google responded by saying that the lawsuit is “deeply flawed,” based on “dubious” interpretations of antitrust law, and that it “would do nothing to help consumers.”

How are consumers allegedly being hurt?

One complicating factor in the Google case compared to typical antitrust lawsuits is that almost all of Google’s products, including its search service and Chrome browser, are made available for free. So Department of Justice lawyers can’t simply point to higher prices as an obvious consumer harm the way they have in lawsuits against airlines, drugmakers, or even tuna fish canners.

Instead, the DOJ argues that consumers are being hurt by missing out on higher-quality online apps and services that, while not costing less, might have better privacy and security protections. And Google’s conduct may be thwarting the development of new and innovative products like better digital assistants, the lawsuit charges. And digital advertisers may have more choices and pay less if there was more competition.

“The incentives and abilities for companies to develop and distribute innovative search products would be restored, resulting in more options, better products, and higher consumer welfare overall,” the lawsuit notes.

Google entirely rejects the premise that it’s harming consumers at all. “Today, you can easily download your choice of apps or change your default settings in a matter of seconds—faster than you can walk to another aisle in the grocery store,” the company said. “This lawsuit claims that Americans aren’t sophisticated enough to do this. But we know that’s not true. And you know it too: People downloaded a record 204 billion apps in 2019. Many of the world’s most popular apps aren’t preloaded—think of Spotify, Instagram, Snapchat, Amazon, and Facebook.”

What are the possible remedies if Google loses?

The lawsuit doesn’t actually include a specific set of proposed remedies to end and correct the harms alleged. Instead, it briefly lists all of the categories of remedies available to a court under the law, such as orders barring Google from engaging in certain practices, fining the company, or using “structural relief,” a legal term meaning splitting up the company or forcing asset sales. In a call with reporters, Deputy U.S. Attorney General Jeffrey Rosen said his department would seek an order stopping anticompetitive conduct “at a minimum,” adding that “additional relief may be necessary” and “nothing is off the table.”

For several years, Google has been making changes to its products in Europe because of a similar legal case brought by EU regulators. For example, when consumers set up a new Android device in Europe, they are offered a “choice screen” to pick a default search service. U.S. antitrust experts have speculated that remedies for the latest case could include everything from barring exclusionary deals to requiring choices for consumers to splitting off parts of Google, like the Chrome browser.

Why doesn’t the lawsuit include YouTube, Maps, or other products?

Although rivals have complained about Google’s dominance in a variety of markets, Tuesday’s lawsuit filed was narrowly focused on search services and search ads. Associate Deputy Attorney General Ryan Shores told reporters that the department has investigated many aspects of Google’s businesses but chose to file charges over just the search aspects at this time. He declined to explain further, saying he couldn’t disclose the department’s “internal deliberations” about the case.

What happens next?

Antitrust lawsuits can take many years to wind their way through the courts. The Justice Department sued IBM in 1969, but after hundreds of court hearings and the production of 30 million documents, it ultimately dropped the charges in 1982. Microsoft was sued in 1998 and the case was settled three years later, though it took until 2004 for an appeals court to approve the final deal.

The case will need to be assigned to a judge, who will then hold initial hearings to schedule a trial date, which may not be for another six to 12 months. Barring a settlement, the losing side is almost certain to appeal, at which point the case could wind through the courts for another year or two.