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Google AG probe: States want answers on privacy and antitrust

They're looking to find out more about Google's data collection practices.

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Google headquarters in Mountain View, California. 

Stephen Shankland/CNET

Fifty attorneys general earlier this week opened an antitrust investigation into the search business at Google and Alphabet, its parent company. But the states also have another interest: Alphabet's privacy and data collection practices.

In a 29-page document, the attorneys general requested that Google produce more than 230 explanations or documents related to the company's products, including the Chrome browser, YouTube, AMP (Accelerated Mobile Pages) and AdMob ad platform. The states are seeking documents that date back to January 2014 and expect answers from Google by Oct. 9.

The document, known as a civil investigative demand, was sent to Kevin Yingling, Alphabet's senior competition counsel, by the office of Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton, who's leading the investigation. The probe includes participation from 48 states, Washington, DC, and Puerto Rico. CNET filed a public records request to get the document, which was previously reported by Bloomberg. 

The AGs' request makes clear their interest goes beyond antitrust, which has been the marquee issue discussed so far, and into Google's privacy policy. In one demand, the AGs have asked Google to explain the "business justification" for having its login tool, which allows people to sign in to third-party sites with their Google credentials, also collect information about users across devices.

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Another demand asks Google to explain what types of behavioral data it collects when people visit a website on Chrome or view an AMP page. Another asks the company to explain how it collects data on mobile devices for "retargeting," which follows your activity across apps and websites, showing you the same ads as you move around online. One request asks the company to explain how an Android ad tool "tracks individual users across different applications" on the mobile operating system.

Reached for comment, Google pointed to a blog post it published last week written by Senior Vice President of Global Affairs Kent Walker. In the missive, Google acknowledges the regulatory scrutiny and says it'll work with with government officials. Paxton's office didn't respond to questions about the scope of the investigation to focus on data and privacy.

The states' probe comes as Silicon Valley faces increased heat from government regulators, who've targeted tech companies over potential anti-competitive behavior, privacy breaches and data misuse. Last week, New York Attorney General Letitia James announced a similar probe into Facebook

Google is the clear leader when it comes to US digital advertising and has more than 37% of the market, according to eMarketer. Facebook follows at No. 2 with around 22%. Though Google has a commanding advantage, rivals like Amazon, which owns 9% of the market, have made inroads in recent years. 

Still, Google is miles ahead when it comes to search advertising, ads that are tied to specific terms. Google has almost 75% of the search advertising market, according to eMarketer, while its nearest competitor, Microsoft, follows far behind at almost 7%.

Though the AGs delve into data collection, they're still mostly asking about advertising. The probe requests information and documents related to Google's ad tech acquisitions, such as DoubleClick and AdMob, which helped turn it into a juggernaut that generates more than $100 billion a year in revenue. 

Paxton, who announced the probe on Monday during a press conference on the steps of the US Supreme Court, indicated the investigation could go beyond Google's ad business. 

"It's an investigation to determine the facts," Paxton said. "Right now it's about advertising, but the facts will lead where they lead."