DOJ likely to file Google antitrust suit with no Democratic support

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The Justice Department is likely to file its long-awaited antitrust suit against Google early next week, but without the sign-on of any Democratic attorneys general, four people familiar with the case said Friday — upending the Trump administration’s hopes to enlist bipartisan support for its fight against the internet giant.

The suit, the first major monopolization case in decades, comes as both Republican and Democratic politicians have been berating Google and other massive tech companies like Facebook and Apple about their outsize influence over the U.S. economy and their treatment of competitors.

The Justice Department has been negotiating for months with a group of attorneys general from 48 states, Puerto Rico and the District of Columbia about whether they can combine their separate investigations into a unified complaint against Google over its search engine. A strong backing from Democratic AGs could have helped the case make the transition to a Joe Biden administration if the former vice president wins the White House next month.

While some Republican attorneys general have signed onto the Justice Department complaint, others have joined Democratic AGs in a group that is moving ahead with a separate complaint against Google, the people said, speaking anonymously to discuss the ongoing investigations.

That bipartisan group of states expects to file an antitrust complaint challenging Google’s search practices at a later date, the people said. That group, led by Democratic attorneys general in Colorado and Iowa along with Nebraska’s Republican attorney general, has expressed concern about what they view as the Justice Department’s narrow approach to the case, the people said. Filing a separate suit would allow more leverage if the DOJ negotiates a settlement with Google they don’t like, they said.

The Trump DOJ had hoped to entice Democratic-led states to sign on to the complaint in the hopes of avoiding claims that politics played a part in the suit’s filing. Up to now, the Google investigations have proceeded on a bipartisan basis with prosecutors from the Justice Department and nearly every U.S. state.

A third antitrust complaint, headed by Texas, that focuses on Google’s power in the advertising technology market is likely to be filed in the coming weeks. That suit has been complicated by bribery and improper influence allegations against Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton. The Justice Department is separately investigating Google’s control in the ad tech industry and could file its own case or join in Texas’s suit.

Spokespeople for Google and the Justice Department both declined to comment.

The number of states that will sign on to the Justice Department’s search complaint next week is unknown, as are its exact contents. Louisiana Attorney General Jeff Landry, a Republican leader of the Google probe, however, has said he plans to join the DOJ suit and criticized state leaders who don’t plan to sign on. Landry and attorneys general for eight other Republican-led states met with Attorney General William Barr to discuss the suit last month and are viewed as the most likely candidates to join the DOJ complaint, the people said.

The complaint is likely to include allegations that Google has used restrictive contracts with smartphone makers and telecom providers to ensure that its search engine is set as the default on devices that use its Android operating system, two of the people said. Those contracts also require that other Google properties come pre-installed on Android devices. Google’s contract with Apple, in which the tech giant pays billions each year to ensure it is the default search engine on iPhones, and its contract to be the default for Mozilla’s Firefox browser are also likely to be in included in the complaint.

In its 450-page report this month, House Judiciary’s antitrust panel found that Google has used Android to “entrench and extend its dominance” in search.

“Android’s business practices reveal how Google has maintained its search dominance through relying on various contractual restrictions that blocked competition and through exploiting information asymmetries, rather than by competing on the merits,” the report said.

Europe’s primary competition agency, the European Commission, fined Google €4.34 billion — about $5 billion — for its conduct related to Android in 2018. In response to that probe, Google has introduced a preference menu that allows Android users to select which search engine they want to use on new devices.

Other aspects of Google’s business may be included in the DOJ complaint. The House report found the company uses its control of the Chrome browser, the most used browser in the U.S., and its popular Google Maps service to aid its dominance in search. Rivals also alleged that Google has misappropriated their content and preferences its own products over organic search results.

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