Google's three antitrust battles: Here's what you need to know

The DOJ's case against the search giant likely won't go to trial until late 2023.

Richard Nieva Former senior reporter
Richard Nieva was a senior reporter for CNET News, focusing on Google and Yahoo. He previously worked for PandoDaily and Fortune Magazine, and his writing has appeared in The New York Times, on CNNMoney.com and on CJR.org.
Andrew Morse Former executive editor
Andrew Morse is a veteran reporter and editor. Before joining CNET, he worked at The Wall Street Journal, Reuters and Bloomberg, among other publications.
Richard Nieva
Andrew Morse
8 min read

Google CEO Sundar Pichai

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Google's antitrust woes continue to mount. 

In two months, the search giant has attracted three antitrust lawsuits. In October, the US Department of Justice filed a landmark lawsuit alleging that Google unlawfully boxed out competitors by reaching deals with phone makers, including Apple and Samsung , to be the default search engine on their devices. The tentative start date for the trial is Sept. 23, 2023, Judge Amit Mehta said last week.

The latest lawsuit, filed by nearly 40 attorneys general on Dec. 17, alleges that the tech giant's search results favored its own services over those of more-specialized rivals, a tactic that harmed competitors. The bipartisan complaint also claims Google used its dominant position to become the default search engine not only on web browsers and smartphones , but in newer technologies like smart speakers and connected cars. The complaint came a day after 10 other states led by Texas accused Google of engaging in "false, deceptive, or misleading acts" while operating its buy-and-sell auction system for digital ads. 

The legal actions, as well as a pair of complaints filed against Facebook , are the latest evidence of growing anxiety about the influence tech giants have over all aspects of our lives. Legislators and regulators are concerned about how Big Tech's power might ultimately harm consumers, especially by choking off competition from smaller players in Silicon Valley. The US House of Representatives has hammered Google and other tech giants, releasing a scathing 449-page report on the companies' allegedly anticompetitive practices. 

The reckoning over the scale and scope of Google, Facebook and other tech companies isn't limited to the US. Earlier this week, the European Commission unveiled two pieces of proposed legislation, the Digital Services Act and Digital Markets Act, that could shape businesses' practices for years to come if they're passed into law. Similarly, the UK unveiled its proposed Online Harms legislation, designed to create "a new age of accountability" for social media.

Read more: Google faces renewed battles in labor and antitrust in 2021

Google isn't a new target for antitrust scrutiny. In 2013, the US Federal Trade Commission wrapped up a two-year investigation into Google after allegations of biased search results. The agency concluded that Google hadn't violated antitrust laws. 

Here's what you need to know about the tech giant's antitrust battles: 

What are the antitrust issues facing Google?

Google's dominance in web search, digital advertising and smartphone software are the primary areas of interest to lawmakers and regulators. 

The company processes around 90% of all online searches in the US. That stranglehold is the foundation of Google's massive advertising business, which generates almost all of the company's $160 billion in annual sales. Google has been accused of hurting competitors by giving priority in its search results to its own products, like shopping ads or local business listings, over the listings of rivals. Critics also complain the tech giant takes content from publishers and other websites and uses it in prepared answers directly in search results, rather than simply providing a list of links that send users to other sites. 

Google's ad business is also under the microscope because the company owns every step in a complicated system that connects ad sellers and buyers. Rivals say the process gives Google an unfair edge over the market. Much of the company's advertising prowess comes from acquisitions, including the 2008 buyout of the ad-tech firm DoubleClick.

The company also owns the Android operating system, the most popular mobile software in the world. Its dominance is hard to overstate; Android powers almost nine out of every 10 smartphones shipped globally. The tech giant has been accused of using that dominance to strong-arm partners to bundle Google's apps, like search and Maps, into their offerings. 

What exactly is in the DOJ lawsuit? 

The DOJ's case, which was filed jointly by 11 state attorneys general, is narrow. It alleges Google broke antitrust law by cutting deals with device makers to be the default search engine on their devices, a move that blocked competitors. Google, owned by Alphabet, also used the dominance of its Android operating system to pressure device makers to preload Google apps on their phones, the lawsuit says. 

The suit is the culmination of a more than yearlong investigation into the search giant's practices, a landmark antitrust case in the tech world. Google has denied engaging in anticompetitive behavior and called the case "deeply flawed."

The complaint focuses mainly on Google's search and search advertising businesses. It says Google harms rivals by cutting "exclusionary" deals with phone makers including Apple and Samsung to be the default search engine on devices. It's part of a strategy to "lock up" search distribution, the DOJ alleges.

The suit also gives new details about Google's contracts with other companies. For example, Google pays Apple $8 billion to $12 billion in ad revenue a year to make Google search the default on Apple devices. In 2018, Pichai and Cook met to discuss how they could work together to drive revenue, the lawsuit said. After the meeting, an Apple employee wrote to a Google employee, "Our vision is that we work as if we are one company."

Last year, almost half of Google's search traffic came from Apple devices, according to the DOJ's complaint. The agreement is so important that Google views losing it as a "Code Red" scenario, the lawsuit says.

Is partisan politics a factor?

It could be. Most of the DOJ lawyers on the probe argued they needed more time to build a strong case against Google, though then-US Attorney General William Barr is said to have overruled their guidance, according to The New York Times. Some of the attorneys were concerned the aggressive timeline, with work completed before the election, was meant to ensure the Trump administration got credit for taking on a big tech company. The lawyers viewed the September deadline as arbitrary and laid out their argument for a longer timeline in a memo that spanned hundreds of pages, the Times said. 

The 11 states that joined the federal lawsuit -- Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Indiana, Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi, Missouri, Montana, South Carolina and Texas -- have Republican attorneys general. California, which joined later, has a Democrat AG.

Bipartisan support exists for antitrust scrutiny of Google. But some Republicans have cheered the investigation alongside accusations the tech giant censors conservative voices. President Donald Trump has repeatedly accused Google of foul play, without evidence. 

Two years ago, the president claimed that Google's search results were "rigged" to promote negative news stories on Trump. At the time, he told reporters, "I think Google has really taken advantage of a lot of people." He added, "Google and Twitter and Facebook, they're really treading on very, very troubled territory, and they have to be careful."

What about the other two cases?

On Dec. 16, a group of 10 states led by Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton accused Google of engaging in "false, deceptive, or misleading acts" while operating its buy-and-sell auction system for digital ads. It also alleges that Google teamed up with Facebook to strike an unlawful agreement to manipulate advertising auctions. The publicly available lawsuit was heavily redacted. 

The Wall Street Journal subsequently reported some of the redacted details, including a September 2018 arrangement in which Facebook and Google agreed that the social media giant would get special treatment and agreed to share information in the event of an antitrust lawsuit. Google reportedly referred to the deal as "Jedi Blue," a nod to Star Wars. Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg signed the agreement, the WSJ reported, calling it a "big deal strategically" in an email to CEO Mark Zuckerberg.

Google said Facebook is part of a group of more than 25 companies that participates in Google's Open Bidding program in which the search giant works with other ad networks and exchanges. "There's nothing exclusive about their involvement and they don't receive data that is not similarly made available to other buyers," Google said. Facebook didn't respond to a request for comment.

A day later, a bipartisan coalition of 38 states and territories alleged that the tech giant holds a monopoly in general search, the heart of its consumer tech business. The lawsuit alleges that the tech giant harmed competitors by favoring its own services over those of rivals and in the way it displayed search results. The complaint also claims Google used the company's voice assistant feature to become the default search engine on emerging technologies, like smart speakers and connected cars.

Google said in a blog post that competition is "just a click away" that redesigning its search results would harm consumers.

Congress is also scrutinizing Google?

Google -- along with Apple, Amazon and Facebook -- is the target of a broader probe by the House Judiciary's antitrust subcommittee into Silicon Valley's market dominance. One of the goals of the investigation is to explore whether the US needs new competition laws to govern the tech giants in the digital age.

The subcommittee, led by Rhode Island Democrat David Cicilline, gathered more than 1.3 million documents from the tech giants, competitors and antitrust enforcement agencies during the more than yearlong investigation. The culmination of the probe was a historic hearing in July during which the CEOs from the four companies appeared via video chat

The subcommittee released its findings in a 449-page report in October, accusing the tech giants of "abuses of monopoly power." The report calls for restructuring and other changes to rein in the companies. One recommendation, for example, would make it tougher for tech giants to buy up smaller companies, a practice that consolidates the industry.

For Google, much of the scrutiny was directed at the company's alleged promotion of its own products over those of rivals. "Evidence shows that once Google built out its vertical offerings, it introduced various changes that had the effect of privileging Google's own inferior services while demoting competitors' offerings," the report says. 

The Senate has also targeted Google. In September, Don Harrison, Google's president of global partnerships and corporate development, testified before the Senate Judiciary antitrust subcommittee. Lawmakers on both sides of the aisle grilled the executive on Google's massive ad business. 

"We are not having this hearing because Google is successful," said Sen. Amy Klobuchar, the subcommittee's ranking Democrat. "We are having it because even successful companies, even popular companies and even innovative companies are subject to the laws of this country, including our antitrust laws."

Later in the hearing, Harrison argued that Google isn't dominant in digital advertising, citing competitors like Facebook and Snapchat. Klobuchar responded, "I disagree." 

What about outside the US? What has the European Union done?

Google's antitrust woes aren't limited to the US. Last year, the search giant was hit with a $1.7 billion fine by the European Commission for "abusive" online ad practices. The commission said Google exploited its dominance by restricting its rivals from placing their search ads on third-party websites. 

Two years ago, the EU's executive arm fined Google a record $5 billion for unfair business practices around Android, its mobile operating system. The investigation focused on Google's deals with phone manufacturers, requiring them to preload specific Google apps and services onto Android phones.

Watch this: Google's Pichai "We don't steal money from small businesses"